On paper, Elton John's rollicking Wonderful Crazy Night sounds like it should have been a blockbuster. The album presents as an emotional bookend to 2013's more meditative The Diving Board, and continues his later-period collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett that stretches back to 2010's The Union with Leon Russell.

Like many sequels, however, something seems to be missing here. Delicately conveyed nuance turns into bombast; the material tries too hard, takes the easy way out, plays to the back row. Blame longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, whose efforts – in particular on the title track and "Blue Wonderful" – lack the kind of specificity to engage. And blame Burnett, who takes the air out of the proceedings with an overly sleek approach that focuses on separation more than earthy feel. The result is a production with more light than heat.

Even the appearance of classic-era band members Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson, here for the first time since 2006's retro-focused The Captain and the Kid, can't completely save the uneven Wonderful Crazy Night. They help make "In the Name of You" into a swaggering outburst and give a Beatles-meets-Muscle Shoals feel to "A Good Heart," only to get tangled up in the strangely maudlin "Claw Hammer" and the overly chirpy "Guilty Pleasure."

Elsewhere, "Looking Up" uses some of John's most muscular piano playing to power its sunny disposition, adding a thundering sense of joy. But Wonderful Crazy Night follows it up with "The Open Chord," a missed opportunity that places every one of this album's foibles – from its disconnected lyric to its freeze-dried accompaniment – at center stage once again.

Thing is, you can hardly blame John. A great actor trying to give life to lackluster material, he sings with bellowing gusto, pounds the keys with furious intent, surrenders every bit of his heart to each morose line.

With “I’ve Got 2 Wings,” for example, John is finally given a detailed lyric from Taupin – and he completely inhabits the stirring image of Louisiana bluesman Elder Utah Smith using the paper wings he'd wear onstage to soar right into heaven. But too often elsewhere, Wonderful Crazy Night's lazy script lets him down.

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