23. “Your Song” by Elton John (1970)

The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.

If I’m thumbing through my vinyl collection and can’t decide what mood I’m in, there are five albums I’ll default to and throw on. They’re The ’59 Sound by Gaslight Anthem, Hold Fast: Acoustic Sessions by Face to Face, Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go’s, the self-titled album by Frank Black and the Catholics, and Greatest Hits by Elton John. You know that one. It’s the one of him in the white suit and white fedora sitting at a piano with a cane leaned up on the keys. It’s 10 absolutely masterful songs, and they’re from only 1970 through 1974, which, it bears mention, Elton John just stopped touring last year (2023).

I could do a JOAT 50 Song Countdown of just Elton John songs, and it would still feel wildly incomplete. Elton John is unimpeachable. A legend. A superstar. An icon. He’s really got something for everyone. He’s weird and stylish. His partying exploits (before he got sober) are the stuff of myth and only topped by perhaps Andre the Giant. He raised a ton of money for AIDS research. He’s one of the truly larger than life personalities we have ever had, and I’m grateful that his life has not been cut short the way so many others have. He’s been around and famous since before I was born, and his music will be there long after I’m dead.

Despite his grandiloquence, there is an aching, beautiful tender humanity at the heart of so much of his music, especially “Your Song.” I don’t have a good enough musical vocabulary to describe what’s happening with this arrangement, but somehow the song sounds both quiet and small while simultaneously feeling grand and epic. The string section, the piano, the guitar plucking that appears and disappears – it’s all just so overwhelming. If the lyrics to this song were about how much he likes stuffed crust pizza, I’d likely still find this song incredibly beautiful.

But the lyrics reveal the part of our soul we don’t show to everyone, only to our most trusted and most beloved confidantes. The feelings are so strong and the sentiment so sincere, Elton has a hard time verbalizing what he’s trying to say. There’s a clumsiness here that’s also apparent in Macy Gray’s “I Try” that I find impossibly charming, and reminds me of my own marriage proposal to Kristin.

In the song’s second stanza, Elton sings “If I was a sculptor, heh, but then again, no… Or a man who makes potions in a traveling show” like he’s live editing this verbal love letter to whoever he’s singing about and wanting to get the metaphor right, but can’t quite do it. He’s stammering because he loves this person and wants them to know the depth of his feeling. And he can’t get out of his own way! These lines come near the end:

So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do
You see, I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue
Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean
Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen

Uhhhhh. Whoops. He’s focusing on the wrong kind of details, and these wrong words just keep tumbling out of his mouth. He’s flustered. He’s in love. His brain doesn’t work right. It’s all incredibly endearing and deeply human.

A couple of months before I proposed to Kristin, I told my brother-in-law how I was going to do it. I told him why I loved Kristin so much, used some evocative details from our relationship and our life together, and when I was done talking, he told me, “That’s definitely how you should propose.”

Cut ahead to the day, and we’re sitting at our kitchen table. I’ve poured Kristin and I a couple of glasses of wine from a really expensive bottle we had been saving. She’s just gotten off work, I had the day off, and I’m wearing a suit, which I hope she doesn’t find too conspicuous. As I start in to what I planned to say, I get flustered and lose the thread of the point I’m trying to make. At one point I digress into talking about my regular commute to and from work, which, I swear made sense in the original version in my head, but now is just landing on her confusing and irrelevant.

I’m so off-track that at one point I swear I feel my soul float out of my body, hover above me, look down at me and shout, “What the fuck are you talking about?!” I cut to the end, get down on one knee and ask her to marry me. She enthusiastically says yes in a way only Kristin can, and we proceed to eat our outstanding meal, drink our expensive wine and cap off the night with cocktails at The Brown Palace.

“Your Song” is the musical version of that moment in my life. We often turn into our klutziest selves when we try to express the depth of our feelings to someone else. It’s harrowing when it’s you; it’s adorable when you’re watching someone else do it; it’s transcendent when Elton John sings about it. But really, what else is there to say besides this:

I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words: How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.

That’s about as perfect a sentiment as you can utter to another person.

Up next: Auteurism.

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