I suppose Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” from 1973 is what they would call the oldies these days.
And since I’m older, this was a chorus I remember well from my childhood. I have no idea how many times I have heard this song over the years, but I feel like I just finally listened to it for the first time thanks to a cover by Sarah Bareilles, as performed with the National Symphony Orchestra.
I then found another version with just Bareilles’ piano accompaniment,  which I have listened to a number of times, now, to the point where the song is playing in my head. I find it deeply affecting and such a completely different experience from what John did. (No disrespect intended. This cover couldn’t have happened without the immense popularity and ingenuity of the original. I want this to be a statement about both the quality of the song and the artist covering it.)
Bareilles begins her rendition with a quiet, relentless striking of discordant chimes:
And then Bareilles introduces a simple, dark tune—a reference to the melody of the song—to play against the chimes.
There’s considerable tension in this. It’s mournful. Foreboding. Contrast Bareilles’ introduction with the sort of benign beginning by John:
The tone of John’s production is cheery in comparison. It is a real contrast to the bleak landscape of Bareilles’ accompaniment. John was collaborating with others to produce an album; Bareilles was creating a moment for her listeners.
As Bareilles begins the first verse, we hear how that tune is the source for some of that dark melody in the introduction. The accompaniment remains unchanging which continues the tension as she begins to sing.
My initial thought was that this accompaniment was a little distracting. That clanging effect is so different from John’s original version that I thought it was taking away from the song.
But there’s something helpful about the this sparse accompaniment because as Bareilles sings and the melody is given primacy, I think it’s easier to hear the words. The simple accompaniment also allows Bareilles to add a dimension of emotion to the story she is telling through the song. This performance has room to go somewhere. Ultimately, Bareilles is telling a story—one I had never really paid attention to—and creating a moment for her listeners.
I’m not sure who the first two lines are addressed to,
When are you gonna come down?
When are you going to land?
Who is the singer talking to? Clearly the next two lines are self-directed, though. They are statements of introspection and, boy, does the regret of those “I should statements” come through:
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man
I suspect we can all relate to an “I should have . . .” of one form or another. But it’s not simply regret over what the singer has done and how they ignored the advice of their father. It’s what’s being done to the singer. The next two lines reveal there’s an antagonist for our protagonist:
You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign off with you
The singer is feeling trapped even if rationally they know it isn’t “forever.” “I didn’t sign off with you” indicates some choice-making has been taken away from the singer. And perhaps this begins to make sense of those opening lines. “When are you gonna come down/land?” are questions the singer is asking of herself. In other words, “When are you going to do something about how things are?” Since things can’t go on forever, the only question is who controls the ending.
There’s a further declaration in that first verse:
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This is a powerful line because it indicts the antagonist implied in the song. An element of exploitation has been going on. The singer is objecting to being used for the delight of others. This leads us into the last line of the first verse, which is transitional and takes us into a sort of bridge. I take the “This boy’s too young” to be self-referential. If it is a kind of conversation in the singer’s mind, then a healthy, protective part of the singer is speaking before another part—the injured part—takes over with a kind of wail.
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues
Bareilles is amazing here. She is not just singing about the blues, but actually singing them with her gentle cry. This is a part of the song that comes through so well in Bareilles’ cover.
This brings us to that first chorus.
So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough
Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny-back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road
The central image is quite specific, of course—an allusion to the Yellow Brick Road from The Wizard of Oz—but I wonder how much it is about that film. It’s a specific image, but I’m not sure we’re supposed to be thinking about Dorothy and Toto and company as much as the idea of a path of gold (or a path to gold) that comes with a price you may not want to pay. “The dogs of society howl” along this path. There are strings attached to whatever the singer has been pursuing and to cut the strings is to leave both the path and the reward behind.
I love the juxtapositions in this chorus between the penthouse and the farm, the path forward on the yellow brick road and “going back,” the pain of the present and the nostalgia for the past. It’s the city versus the country, being planted versus planting, living up high versus living on the ground. The planting that is impossible in a penthouse is a fairly routine practice when you have a plough that one imagines is ever-present on the farm. I especially like the sound play of both “the howling old owl in the woods” and “Hunting the horny-back toad” as well as the kind of innocence it conjures. That innocence has been lost, which perhaps explains the resigned quality of Bareilles’ singing.
It’s fun to hear the audience resonate with Bareilles as she finishes this first chorus. Is it because her accompaniment is beginning to match the original version and so the audience is encouraging the changing accompaniment, or have they been listening to the storyteller, resonating with the story and where it’s going, and encouraging the singer?
Where John follows the chorus with another set of “ah’s” Bareilles goes right into the second verse. And there’s something marvelous about this. I feel like this “ah” passage, what above I called a bridge, becomes a bit of a throw-away in John’s version. Bareilles skips this here and as she gets into the second verse, she now gives us the feeling of Elton John’s piano playing groove. Here’s that sound from Elton John:
Here is how Bareilles imitates it as she begins the second verse:
It seems like a couple things may be going on here. Bareilles may be offering an intentional homage to Elton John, but it’s also becoming clear that Bareilles is working to take this song from one place to another. Since the song was going to go somewhere, she might as well mirror the original for a moment.
The lyrics of the second verse are a little challenging for me, partly because they are the darkest in the song and partly because I have a hard time following the images.
What do you think you’ll do, then?
I bet they’ll shoot down your plane
It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again
Maybe you’ll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain’t got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground
For starters, who is talking to whom? Whose plane is going to get shot down? That’s a kind of violence that certainly raises the stakes for leaving.
I hear some resignation in the third and forth lines. The singer knows they are just a couple of drinks away from being forgotten or, worse, replaced, as the rest of the stanza states. There is something rather singular about this exploiter and something altogether too common about the singer and those like her. There’s one of the former and too many of the latter.
The second time Bareilles sings the chorus, there’s more resolve. What might have been tentative in the first chorus is declarative in this second one and the song is headed to a kind of catharsis in the “ah’s” that follow that’s best experienced in the context of the entire song and not excerpted. Sarah Bareilles has taken ownership of this song and made it something we didn’t know was there. It’s almost operatic. Where Elton John’s dynamic is rather level throughout, Bareilles has been building to this moment.
The final chorus still has some discord, but something has also resolved and the song heads to a peaceful conclusion. Where those early chimes were discordant,
here at the end, they are beautiful. The storm has passed and the skies are clear. The chorus is now wistful rather than declarative. It’s a memory without the pain.
Bareilles has added an arch to her version that I don’t hear in the original. It starts in a place, goes somewhere, and then lands somewhere new and carthatic. You can hear this when you mash the three versions of the chorus together:
The ending is sweet as Bareilles takes her time to bring the song to an end. There are two imperfect cadences before a final and very satisfying conclusion.
One question comes up as I now, finally after all these years, am hearing what the song says: To what extent is this song autobiographical? The lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s collaborator. David Lifton reports that “just three years after they first became famous, Taupin was already tiring of the spotlight.”  Lifton summarizes the message of the song this way:
“Just as Dorothy needed to follow the glittering path in The Wizard of Oz to realize that her black-and-white Kansas home offered her more than the technicolor Oz, Taupin’s lyrics reflect someone who’s seen the limelight and wants to be back among the “howling old owl” and “horny-back toad” of his rural past.” 
Taupin, himself, puts it this way:
“There was a period when I was going through that whole ‘got to get back to my roots’ thing, which spawned a lot of like-minded songs in the early days, this being one of them. I don’t believe I was ever turning my back on success or saying I didn’t want it. I just don’t believe I was ever that naïve. I think I was just hoping that maybe there was a happy medium way to exist successfully in a more tranquil setting. My only naiveté, I guess, was believing I could do it so early on. I had to travel a long road and visit the school of hard knocks before I could come even close to achieving that goal.” 
The interesting thing for both Elton John and Sarah Bareilles is the irony of how you can sing about longing to get out of the spotlight as you sing in the spotlight. I’m not meaning to throw shade. The world’s a better place because of these songs as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps it’s a false choice between singing about the longing and acting on the impulse.
It’s unlikely I will hear the Sarah Bareilles version out in public—it’s too idiosyncratic and not ideal for Muzak—but the next time I hear Elton John’s original rendition, her remarkable storytelling will inform my hearing.