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Jan 11

ELTON JOHN – “Sacrifice”/”Healing Hands”

FT + Popular70 comments • 4,854 views

#647, 23rd June 1990

In the latest X-Factor series they did an Elton John theme week for the first time. Nobody sang “Sacrifice”, probably because it’s very glum and not terribly good. But the choices they did make brought out the unique qualities not so much of Elton but of Bernie Taupin, and the pleasure lay in hearing voices groomed for today’s smooth-milled lyrics suddenly have to struggle with horny-back toads and wide-eyed warriors.

Taupin is a chewy lyricist, sometimes oblique, often awkward in the way he comes at clauses or ideas. That infuriating bit in “Your Song” where he changes his mind mid-line about whether to be a sculptor or not is pure Bernie. So is “maker of potions at a travelling show”, for that matter. These lines give Elton’s songs their character, but they can also make them unwieldy and doughy. And I think this is what happens in “Sacrifice”, a bit. He’s not being cryptic here – if you didn’t know he was having marriage troubles you certainly wouldn’t win a prize for guessing – but couplets like “Into the boundary of each married man / Sweet deceit comes calling and negativity lands” feel clumsy.

But then maybe clumsy is how they’re meant to feel. The emotional landscape of “Sacrifice” is one where the individuals lack agency – only emotions and states are active: it’s temptation, negativity, deceit, sensitivity that are doing stuff while the two people in a marriage drift listlessly towards its end. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” starts with a similar trick – “Routine bites hard… resentment rides high…” – though its protagonist makes a doomed attempt at connection whereas Elton/Taupin just glides on, numb and regretless.

So actually my problem is that the rest of the record – is filled with tells that this is quite a different kind of song. The production – plush and cosseting – suggests the kind of single you don’t have to work very hard at to get the point of. The singing and songwriting is supposedly influenced by Percy Sledge, which I guess means Elton is reaching for the kind of wracked everyman storytelling Sledge did on “When A Man Loves A Woman”. So for me the performance and the lyric are pulling in different directions. I guess all the “It’s no sacrifice” stuff is meant to hint that yes, it is a sacrifice despite what’s being said, but Taupin’s done too good a job of showing us it’s not. And I finish the single thinking – well, why do I care? Which, I suppose, is how the protagonists feel too.

(Oh, “Healing Hands” – it’s more enjoyable on one or two listens than “Sacrifice”, muscly rock-gospel with Elton in full-throated, barking, form. But I don’t remember ever hearing it in 1990 – or since! – so I’m treating this as an A-Side in all but name.)

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Comments

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  1. 61
    wichita lineman on 5 Jan 2011 #

    Smash Hits watch:

    June 13-26 1990 Betty Boo on the cover, plus Seal (he’s got weird face marks!), En Vogue (they’ve got “the funk”!??), Charlatans (they’ve got floppy fringes!), New Kids (they’ve got “detachable feet”!??).

    June 27-July 10 1990 The Stone Roses on the cover: ‘”We’re the best band on the planet” say those mental mouthy “modest” (hem hem) Mancunians. But which planet?’ ask “ver Hits”.

    Intriguingly Candy Flip had TWO Smash Hits covers in 1990, one more than Betty and the Stone Roses.

  2. 62
    anto on 5 Jan 2011 #

    Ever since Tiny Dancer gained a kind of minor classic status at the turn of the noughties there seems to have been a consdiderable
    about-turn on Elton John. It’s as if the song of mourning for a nations Princess saw him go so far into the establishment that the only way out was back to the future so it seems as though over the past ten years he’s been handpicking the most credible parts of his long sprawling career and taking inspiration from those peaks
    while presiding over the influence he’s had on contempoary performers such as Rufus Wainwright, Scissor Sisters, Mika etc. There’s a touch of having his cake and eating it about the return to unadorned
    singer-songwriting because he has retained the Queen Mother of pop status that he appeared to aquire at roughly the same time as the hair transplant (re-discovering his roots* has not excluded tacky ads for
    Royal Mail and Sky Sports or relentless matey-ness with fellow
    glitzy celebs). As for wheter he prefers the tag of seasoned artiste or veteran superstar I have the impression that Elton is capricious enough for the preference to alter from day to day.
    His current duality aside he did seem to be on auto-pilot for a heck of a long time. I would place Sacrifice alongside Nikita or
    Turn On Those Sad Songs. Triumphs of polish over vigour catchy enough for some chart action given an extra push by long-held stardom. It’s ponderous nonetheless. I suspect Elton and Bernie for that matter were a tad surpised when this went to number one. As for why it sat there for so long I suppose the country was to busy watching penalty shoot-outs to pay much heed to the charts.
    Can I congratulate him on becoming a Daddy.

    *This was not meant as a pun.

  3. 63
    Alfred on 5 Jan 2011 #

    I adore “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” — sung with real force, slightly behind the beat — even though, as Christgau once wrote, it’s not at all a blues song.

  4. 64
    thefatgit on 6 Jan 2011 #

    If we’re championing songs from Elton’s back catalogue, then I’ll stick my hand up for “Blue Eyes”, from 1982. Bernie Taupin is absent, so Gary Osborne gets to write the lyrics. As far as Elton’s slower numbers go, it’s up there with “Your Song”, not for it’s classic status, but for it’s complexity and the way Elton snuggles himself into the song like a 14 tog duvet. How Elton sums up all the safety and security and comfort of being “home” in one word impressed me greatly.
    That laid-back lounge piano serves as a welcome break from all that synth and horn brashness from much of that year’s output. It also shows up how poor “Sacrifice” is in comparison.

  5. 65
    glue_factory on 6 Jan 2011 #

    Re: 49, LFO is a good track to mention here as Steve Wright is supposed to have described it as the worst record ever and played comedy cow sounds over the top of it.

  6. 66
    thefatgit on 6 Jan 2011 #

    That says everything about Steve Wright, you ever wanted to know. What a tool.

  7. 67
    Chelovek na lune on 6 Jan 2011 #

    I like “Blue Eyes” too. The lyrics flow more than many of Taupin’s compositions, being a bit more natural and unfussy than he often is.

    (A real guilty pleasure, though, in the charts at the same time as “Blue Eyes”, another piano-led ballad, which I still think is absolutely wonderful: Barry Manilow’s “Stay (Live)”. There, I’ve said it.

  8. 68
    Erithian on 7 Jan 2011 #

    With you and a few others on quietly liking this, Billy at #4 – interesting how Elton adding a syllable to “sac-er-i-fice” makes it a pleasure whereas England fans doing the same to “Eng-er-land” is oafish! ;)

    Number one when my fiancée and I moved into our first house, and Elton’s greatest hits was our first subsequent video purchase … so it’s associated with good times anyway.

  9. 69
    DanielW on 3 Feb 2011 #

    Out of the two I prefer “Healing Hands” over “Sacrifice” which does outstay it’s welcome a little bit. I’d give Sacrifice a 6 and Healing Hands an 8, so I’ll average them out and give this record a 7. I think “Sleeping With The Past” is an underrated album though, with “Whispers” and “Durban Deep” being my two favourites from it.

    #63 and #64 Agreed, both would have made better No. 1’s than Sacrifice

  10. 70
    DanH on 22 Jan 2014 #

    I always thought this was an Aaron Neville-type performance, as Neville had a career resurgence around this time. Not upper-echelon at all, but it did provide some odd comfort after a pretty bad breakup. So there’s that

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