Jeff Lynne's ELO
Buoyed by the success of last year's massively attended and enthusiastically received reunion Hyde Park gig, (organised after persuasion from Chris Evans during a radio interview) Electric Light Orchestra, that Brummie bunch with the multi-coloured spaceship and semi-orchestral sound have released their first album in fourteen years; or at least their front man has under the ELO banner. Jeff Lynne, the ridiculously talented multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter and producer has released fresh material just three years on from the release of his solo album, ‘Long Wave’, with an album promising to deliver a truer sound to fans of the band of which he epitomizes.
‘Long Wave’ was a self-declared solo but ‘Alone in the Universe’ poses as an ELO "branded" album; the acronym and the spaceship which has long been synonymous with ELO appear on the album cover but in truth, this is another Lynne solo, albeit better geared to an ELO loving audience. As Jeff himself recently told Rolling Stone magazine: "I did everything except the shaker and the tambourine". Even Jeff’s long-term friend and bandmate, Richard Tandy (the only other original ELO member to feature on 2001’s overlooked ‘Zoom’) is missing from this one. Founding ELO member Bev Bevan is long gone: the pair haven’t spoken for 30 years, hence the awkward legalese surrounding the band’s moniker. Steve Jay is accredited for engineering the album and Lynne’s daughter, Laura, supplies backing vocals on a couple of tracks but the rest is all down to the bearded musical genius with the sunglasses. Vocals, lead guitar, bass, drums, you name it, Jeff can, will and has done it for this record. Perhaps, ‘Alone in the Studio’ would have been a more apt title!!!
The striking thing about ELO is that their music continues to find new listeners, whether through compilations, car commercials, soundtrack placements, or G+ copies of ‘Eldorado’ in used record bins. On one hand, the band ought to have aged about as well as Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Styx, which is to say, not very well. ELO’s best albums – ‘A New World Record’, ‘Discovery’ and 1977's double album masterpiece ‘Out Of The Blue’ in particular—are prime examples of the excesses of the '70s, with all the pomp and studio over-excitement of the most ambitious prog rock imaginable. And yet, Lynne deployed those techniques in service of songs that had all the exuberance and abandon of early rock 'n' roll.
Given their propensity for cosmic imagery (have you seen their web site?), the title of their latest album sounds all the more wistful, as though the absence of alien life is the saddest thing Lynne could ever imagine. That particular melancholy informs first single and album opener ‘When I Was A Boy’, which may sound slight but is animated by the kind of nostalgia often found in country songs. "Radio waves kept me company in those beautiful days when there was no money", Lynne sings, as though flipping through old photo albums. "When I was a boy, I had a dream." He’s still no wordsmith, but there’s something bracing about his directness; any lyrical pretensions would ruin the reverie. However, this is a true ELO track and arguably the best single to be released since the band’s heyday.
On the other hand, you have something like ‘Dirty To The Bone’. With its florid harps and thrumming drums, it’s an upbeat pop song in tone and tempo. But the lyrics are mean-spirited to a near-comical degree, as Lynne describes one of those she-devils who seem to exist only in old rock songs: "She’ll mess you up, she’ll move around… she’ll deceive you till the cows come home." That kind of cartoony straw-woman writing abounded in the '70s, but the casual misogyny, not to mention such threadbare cliché, feels profoundly out of place now. All a bit Whitesnake if you ask me..
‘Alone in The Universe’ fares best when Lynne is more generous, when he can contrast the downcast sentiments of the lyrics with the effervescence of the music. After a rocky side 1, side 2 picks up considerably, thanks to light-speed ‘Ain’t It a Drag’ and the zero-gravity ‘I’m Leaving You’ which pays clear homage to Roy Orbison, one of Lynne’s contemporary’s in supergroup The Travelling Wilburys. Likewise, there are strong hints of John Lennon (who once described ELO as the "son of Beatles") present on 'All My Life', which is no surprise given Lynne's self-confessed Beatles fixation, which remains in full bloom here.
The latter half of the album features ‘One Step at a Time’, a track that epitomizes the ELO of the 70’s and would have fit effortlessly on the masterpiece that was ‘Out of the Blue’; before flowing smoothly into the finale; the eponymous ‘Alone in the Universe’ with its ‘Time’ intro. This is a beautiful track with a whimsical guitar solo; although, not quite in the same league as the likes of 'Waterfall' or 'Midnight Blue'. More of an update of the 1976 single ‘Telephone Line’ I reckon..
‘Alone in the Universe’ doesn’t simply unearth that classic ELO sound like some ancient artifact. Instead, it gently updates those elements to 2015, the year Lynne celebrates his 68th birthday and his 52nd year in the music business. These songs sound precarious, both musically and emotionally. Partly that is due to age and the slight quaver in Lynne’s vocals, which aren’t quite as robust as they used to be. Partly it is due to technology. Lynne has always used to the studio to define his band’s entire identity, and the difference between then and now is the difference between the air-brushed UFO on ‘A New World Record’ and the CGI saucer on ‘Alone in the Universe’. There’s a gauzy thinness to the sound, an inescapable two-dimensionality that occasionally hinders Lynne’s mission. Still, this is a fine addition to their catalog, perhaps not as consistent as 2001’s ‘Zoom’ but much better than these late-career revival albums tend to sound.
But, generally this 14th ELO album is a pleasing album showcasing some of Lynne’s best work as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter since the 80’s. ‘Alone in the Universe’ is a nostalgic romp and a quality album by an exceedingly talented musician with ample ELO qualities but don't expect another ‘Out of the Blue’. While ‘Alone In The Universe’ exists well within Lynne’s comfort zone, it’s never less than enjoyable and, at barely half an hour, doesn’t outstay its welcome. And the really good news is that it has provided the impetus for Lynne to take a band and ELO’s wonderful back catalogue on tour next year, so roll on the 02 Arena in April. And of course, the WRC will be there !!!
01. When I Was a Boy
02. Love and Rain
03. Dirty to the Bone
04. When the Night Comes
05. The Sun Will Shine on You
06. Ain’t It a Drag
07. All My Life
08. I’m Leaving You
09. One Step at a Time
10. Alone in the Universe
Wrinkly The Silver