John Elefante – On My Way to the Sun

The existence of the widespread stage of life notoriously called a midlife crisis due to associated upheaval is debated and even questioned altogether by psychologists. A dramatic turn of events such as a parent or close friend’s death or becoming an empty nester forces us to re-evaluate the sure things in life (and I’m not talking about taxes), but these occurrences are inevitable several times over for everyone and seem to have similar effects irrespective of the age at which they occur. Most artists at ex-Kansas singer John Elefante’s 55 years of age, slowly becoming the new 40 in the rock star world in light of the aging of the classic rock generation but still no sprightly schoolboy, would naturally be expected to undergo midlife crises. One of the contributors to Elefante’s was the passing of his mother on Christmas Eve 2012, to whom his newest solo record On My Way to the Sun is dedicated and by whom the reflections on the priceless value of time in one song, Half the Way Home, seem partially inspired. It is in reading those two titles, not a resignation to an approaching rot in the grave but a metaphorical declaration of the paradise toward which his renowned devout Christian beliefs orient him, and in listening to his newest opus that while Elefante may have undergone a midlife crisis, he has come out victorious. While Elefante’s glass may be half empty, the faith, family, and friends he holds precious enable him to look at that pessimistic picture with optimism. On My Way to the Sun is the musical and lyrical proclamation of triumph over the popular perception, and at times self-fulfilling trend, of the declining quality and relevance of the rock star and the human being past a certain biological and/or socially constructed prime stage of life. It is the self-actualization of classic rock music in the modern era.

This lofty goal is attained through an anthological combination of every musical and historical era Elefante has experienced as a musician. While Elefante’s prior solo albums were competent contemporary Christian music, their stylistic range pales against On My Way to the Sun, which spans a full-blooded 11-minute progressive rock piece that sounds as perfectly like Kansas as any artist has ever attempted thanks to the inclusion of Rich Williams and David Ragsdale on guitar and violin, and also shades of characteristically Kansas layerings of rustic piano and organ, to hard rock numbers closer in spirit to Steve Walsh-penned Kansas but closer to no-frills classic rock, some AOR tendencies in the spirit of Elefante’s contributions to Kansas, and the occasional exotic influence such as the calypso percussion to accompany the acoustic Kansas-styled We All Fall Short. While only the opener exceeds five and a half minutes in length and technical and odd-metered segments are almost absent, the sonic diversity on offer obfuscates the process of categorizing the record into any one specific genre and, especially with its loose theme of “on my way to the sun,” encroaches into progressive rock territory. While Kerry Livgren and Kansas are peerless in progressive rock, Elefante justifies why he was chosen to carry the Kansas microphone in Walsh’s place by honoring Livgren’s trademarks of ornate compositional skills and inviting the listener to experience his quest for answers and meaning in life.

Nostalgia is a masterful plot device throughout the record, exemplified on cuts such as the beefy hard rocker Where Have The Old Days Gone? With Elefante as one of his band’s guitarists, guitar-driven soundscapes are expected, but one musically and vocally muscular enough throughout that an 80’s heavy metal band could cover it wholly incognito is an audacious affair, and well-matched to a set of lyrics lamenting how society’s innocence has slid down a slippery slope. The violin breakdowns are both sharp and sorrowful as they only were in the old days when Kansas was at their peak. Those bygone days when we walked home alone without fear of kidnapping, left doors unlocked without fear of burglary, got around at night without fear of either of the above or, worse, physical or sexual assault, and “we would pray out in the open without a legal fee.” Voice, images, and words sing in harmony, “Those were the good old days!”

A subsequent pure AOR number sustains both the nostalgia and the contrast which make On My Way to the Sun so successful. The appropriately sun-drenched title track, its pumping beat similar to Foreigner and bright guitar twangs similar to U2, mightily succeeds by juxtaposing itself with an air of yearning and a riveting duality; Elefante’s metaphorical journey towards the sun makes him all the more aware of the darkness that still remains around him and within him, and yet with his eyes focused on the sun ahead, he stands optimistic. The spectacular audio quality, meticulous sonic layering, and dynamic mastering are inevitable with both John and brother Dino Elefante’s illustrious reputation as audio engineers; they accentuate fine yet essential details such as the life-affirming choir harmonization with ascending bass and synthesizers at the song’s climax, enabling the record’s galvanic grooves and fetching guitar hooks to sparkle with this hope as much as they pulsate with heaviness.

Melodic hard rock is blanketed with haunting piano and synthesizers on All I Have to Do, endowing a relatively straightforward track with a sense of urgency and drama augmented by a churning bridge riff that slips from 4/4 into 5/4. The Awakening downplays musicianship and riffs to focus on an irresistible, jubilant chorus and its contrast with spacey verses anticipating an imminent Judgement Day for mankind, showing another face of the album’s optimistic perspective on ephemeral earthly existence. Half the Way Home is appropriately located directly after the halfway point, and its portrayal of a major thematic turning point delivers an intense emotional punch which lifts the song to absolute classic status. Exuberant snare rolls and a steady shuffling pace led by bouncy kick drums abate the urgency of the album’s first act while asking the universally relatable question, “Do you ever feel like sometimes you just want to make time stand still?” The glorious chorus swells to heights and shines with youthfulness that belie Elefante’s age, as he learns to balance the responsibility to “make the best of every moment until the time that we ascend” by nursing his family of faith and musical legacy with a new-found ease brought out of his maturity.

Yet even a 55-year-old self-actualized rock star radiating such celestial joy proves he can tackle a gloomy, mature, and controversial subject, which immediately stands out as Elefante’s biggest curve-ball in his career and the one aspect of On My Way to the Sun that will be his claim to fame in the eyes of both music fans and the mainstream media. This Time is written about Elefante’s adopted daughter Sami and her then 13-year-old birth mother’s literally last-second decision to halt Sami’s abortion, reportedly because of divine intervention stating “You’re not taking this one – she’s mine!” Beyond these details, the story is imagined by Elefante, and even more notable than the starkly melancholic tone of the music, Elefante’s stellar vocal performance electrified by his intimate attachment to the subject matter, and the heart-wrenching guitar solo finale is the tremendous music video, whose appearance on my Facebook newsfeed alerted me to this album’s very existence. It was actually becoming a YouTube sensation, and became enough of a sensation with leaders at my church after I e-mailed it to them that the video was later presented in a lecture on abortion. As a pro-life ambassador, This Time is the perfect artistic statement; although Elefante’s views are clear, the lyrical storytelling is far from preachy and the additional visual drama of the conflicted birth mother imagining the celebration at her unborn daughter’s third birthday party, escaping the abortion clinic and calling her mother, and eventually waving a tearful but thankful goodbye to the vision of her daughter is as intellectually captivating as it is emotionally devastating. Not one of about 200 teenage viewers walked out the same person that evening.

If any rock music released in this millennium proves an old rock star can learn new tricks, This Time is Exhibit A, and yet Elefante ticks enough boxes to make the overall product A grade. While vocal-oriented songs are par for the course in melodic rock and the danger of homogeneity is always afoot, the songs are glued together with enough brawny guitar riffs and propulsive drumming to usually remain just as worthy instrumentally and stand up to flavourings from the wider spectrum of rock music. Bouncy multitracked vocal harmonies suggesting heritage in Journey and The Beatles are able to coexist within Don’t Hide Away alongside grungy hard rock in the spirit of Nirvana with a main riff more than halfway like Judas Priest‘s Saints in Hell, because the entire recipe is based in rock. It still tastes like a burger, all right, but with two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun, just like it was cooked in the old days and yet flexible to the modern musical landscape. While I sometimes find myself wishing for Elefante to experiment with the denser song structures and ebullient musical interplay of Kansas, more specifically on the more grandiose This Is How The Story Goes whose writing is sturdy and expansive enough across 11 minutes to potentially stand up to another soupcon of prog spicing, this is about the only ingredient that could make his burger tastier. Yet the extensive musical and thematic depth of On My Way to the Sun more than compensates, and one of the album’s highlights is actually its simplest and least subtle song, at its tail end.

Maybe you aren’t one to confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord as the country-inflected CCM altar call Confess majestically waltzes through the speakers and into silence. But when Elefante’s voice proudly soars over the swaying acoustic guitar strumming in church choral manner and wrenches out agonizing depths of emotion as he voices the crucified Christ and cordially invites the listener to take a brave leap of faith, you will at the very least confess that Elefante has succeeded at an impossible mission. From my Christian perspective, the lyrical content is deeply uplifting and encouraging, and the reflection of this overarching spiritual theme in the musical output is vivid and stunning. On My Way to the Sun is John Elefante’s magnum opus: a manifesto of himself past, present and future as much as an anthology of rock past, present, and future.

You can read more about John Elefante here (at his website) or here (on his Facebook).

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