In recent years he has seemed to be running his career like a production of Elton in Wonderland. First he was the honky-tonk Cheshire Cat, all smiles and no substance. Then came the Mad Hatter superstar trip. After that he was the temperamental Queen of Hearts, mincing for the public. Then he teamed with a series of undistinguished partners who made him sound like Tweedledum and Tweedledummer. With this album, John has found his way out of the rabbit’s hole he wandered into in the late ’70s. He has teamed up with his old composing collaborator, Bernie Taupin, and reunited his band, including guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. Under the direction of producer Chris Thomas, this gang has helped Elton fashion his best album since Madman Across the Water. The 10 songs are pop-ish but don’t sound as if they were tossed off in a pre-breakfast session. Particularly notable is a love ballad, I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, that is tender without being mawkish. Religion contains some of the Brown Dirt Cowboy’s cleverest lyrics, concerning drunks finding Jesus in a parking lot (“When he thought he heard/A choir of angels/Singing in the Tiki Lounge”) and hookers having mystical experiences with a car stereo (“And that’s when she got religion/In the front of a compact Ford”). The songs show how impressive John can be when he isn’t singing himself into the netherworld.