ELTON JOHN Peachtree Road (Mercury/Rocket)

Conceptualised as a return to Reg’s “Tumbleweed Connection” pre-pomp pomp, the initial signs are encouraging. The old gang’s almost all here – Bernie, Davey and Nigel are present and correct, and the booklet carries a dedication to producer Gus Dudgeon, who died in a car accident in 2002. Unfortunately, though, “Peachtree Road”, for all its stripped-down sonics and Americana references, is just another Elton album.

“Tumbleweed Connection” chased the spirit of the old West despite the fact that its authors had yet to visit the States, its images collated from Saturday morning cinema childhoods. Quaint but effective, the dichotomy was laid charmingly bare in the cover photo of the broke down one-horse town street front that carried an advertisement for The Daily Telegraph. If that was the voice of innocence, “Peachtree Road” is very much the voice of experience, hunger and ambition replaced by a kind of aw-shucks humility that repeatedly permeates many of these twelve tracks.

Elton’s vocals don’t help matters. Never the most distinctive of singers, in the old days he got by on honesty and the unquestionable grandeur of his material. Here his voice sounds like a kind of syrup, bland and anonymous, that oozes indiscriminately over the top of the songs, which mainly play a kind of old person pop with occasional gospel- and country-lite shadings. The honky-tonkin’ “They Call Her The Cat” is particularly embarrassing, but the Hammond intro to “I Can’t Keep This From You” briefly recalls a slow, deliberate late-period Van Morrison ballad, until Elton barges in with his histrionic hollering.

Of course, any consideration of the merits or otherwise of “Peachtree Road” has to be tempered with the fact that it’s been the best part of thirty years since Elton’s music provided any serious competition to his image. Even so, it doesn’t prevent this album from being immaculately engineered but utterly unengaging MOR.

ELTON JOHN Honky Château (This Record Co Ltd)

Elton and Bernie’s stylistic restlessness failed to alight upon a strong theme between “Tumbleweed Connection” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, making the albums they bookended no more than relatively disjointed collections of songs. “Honky Château”, originally released in 1972, is a case in point. The slightly unsettling cover photo of Elton in beard and sunglasses seems to be an attempt to position himself as a rock journeyman, a sepia pose not dissimilar to that which framed his eponymous second album. The music it contains does little to dispel this theory, the band cooking up faux Southern rock in the decadent environs of the titular Château d’Hierouville.

Nevertheless, there are times when Elton can’t quite contain his natural flamboyance – the oriental flourishes that decorate “Honky Cat”, for example. Jean Luc-Ponty, Frank Zappa’s favoured violinist, reels off some wheeling, smoky, “Hot Rats”-esque solos during “Mellow” and “Amy”, and Bonzo Legs Larry Smith tap-dances along the tongue-in-cheek jauntiness of “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself”. “Salvation” offers some Leon Russell-style congregation swaying, but most listeners’ tolerance will be tested by “Slave”, wherein Elton and Bernie empathise themselves somewhat incongruously down to the plantation.

“Honky Château” still manages to provide a home for two moments of unalloyed genius, though. “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)” we all know, of course, even though in emerging at least two years after the moon landings, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Space Oddity” it could be accused of missing the ship. Taupin’s lyrics don’t repay close analysis, either: “It’s just my job, five days a week” would seem to suggest that the eponymous astronaut gets weekends off, surely a schedule that would interfere with all those timeless flights. Less immediately familiar is “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters”, which finds the album at its least affected and most affecting: just Elton’s piano, Dee’s bass, Davey’s mandolins and guitar and Bernie’s reflections on New York (writing about an Americahe had experienced, as opposed to one he’d only gained second hand knowledge of). Otherwise, “Honky Châtaeu” is something of a transitional, time-marking experience.