So back before the trademark glasses, the ostentatious showmanship and every other flamboyant cliché revolving around Sir Reginald Kenneth Dwight (winner of Most Vehemently English Name Ever, three years running), there was "Empty Sky." Well actually, there was also "Tumbleweed Connection," "Madman Across The Water" and a few others; it wasn’t until "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" that the stereotypical Elton John persona would come to full fruition. But before Elton’s stint of greatness as a country-influenced art rock/symphonic pop master (patent pending on that genre), there was "Empty Sky."
And while stylistically the album, in a macroscopic, overall sense, falls largely into the “1970s folksy singer-songwriter” category alongside compatriots such as Jim Croce, James Taylor or Al Stewart, the overall effect it gives off is closer to that of, say, "From Genesis To Revelation": the naïve, fledgling artist, still wet behind the ears, trying his darndest to focus wild, untrained ambition and figure out what exactly it is he’s trying to do. If you break down the individual components of the album, a lot of the Elton John trademarks are present here (if in somewhat embryonic form): piano-based poppers with picturesque, oft-meaningless lyrics (courtesy of Elton’s long-term partner Bernie Taupin), embellished by the occasional gentle, beautiful melody. But on the whole, "Empty Sky" feels like quite the misfit in the scope of Sir Elton’s catalogue (you have to wonder how the album came across upon its original release, and how Elton’s following maturation and changes were perceived).
In fact, there’s only one song that gives off the impression of “oh yeah, that’s an Elton John song:” the aching, gorgeous harpsichord-driven ballad "Skyline Pigeon." Listen to the majestic, soaring melody of “just a skyline pigeon dreaming of the open, waiting for the day he can spread his wings and fly away / fly away, skyline pigeon, fly towards the dreams you left so very far away” and try to say you can’t hear shades of "Levon" or "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters" at work. Maybe the lyrics are a tad clichéd (“the two lines I put into every song I’ve ever sang: ‘spread your wings and fly’ and ‘you deserve to be a champion’”), but hey, Bernie had room for growth too. And Elton sells the piece so well that the words aren’t distracting. Yep yep yep, this is definitely a sign of things to come (though it’s a shame the rework of it he would do a few years later came out sounding like typical later-period Elton John bilge).
But elsewhere, there’s not a whole lot that sounds distinctly like Elton John. It’s diverse, if nothing else; Elton seemed to be taking something of a “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” tack here, with some results better than others. Actually, a surprising amount winds up working. Only three tracks fall flat for any reason: "Sails" is a case of variety failed—it aims for bluesy hard rock but ends up rather flaccid and unconvincing (when it comes to rock, Elton was always best when channeling Jerry Lee Lewis). "Lady What’s Tomorrow," on the other hand, is just a by-product of the somewhat amateurish songwriting, with seemingly unrelated melodic fragments pasted onto one another jarringly, making the song annoyingly unmemorable. And then the medley of "Gulliver/Hay Chewed/Reprise" is just a mess. "Gulliver" is a pleasant enough pop ditty, alternating between brooding verses and dreamy waltzy choruses, but once the pseudo beatnik jazz instrumental "Hay Chewed" enters (with no transition, let the record show), things take a turn for the worse, the low point coming with the bizarre "Reprise" section, during which ten second fragments of the previous eight songs fade in and out in sequential order. One has to wonder just what the point of it was supposed to be. Trying to put some sort of a conceptual spin on the album? At least it’s kind of humorous in its weirdness.
But everything else more or less works. The rocking (a term used with something of a grain of salt) title track is certainly a tad overlong, but the song at its core is decent, so there are no major complaints. "Val-Hala" is kind of in the same vein as "Skyline Pigeon," only more fully arranged, "Western Ford Gateway" is a fun folk rocker (possibly the best cut here), "Hymn 2000" is an oddball baroque-pop-meets-60s-psychedelia affair and "The Scaffold" is a pretty Wurlitzer-led folksy ballad. They’re all good, but there isn’t really a clear standout. It’s all good, but not great. Underrated by a fairly significant margin, but only really necessary for diehards and collectors.