Sunday, November 15, 2015

Jeff Lynne's ELO: Exactly What I Wanted; Possibly What You Didn't

It pays to love the man unconditionally. From the very early days of The Idle Race, through the short-lived genius of The Move, through the hit-making years of the Electric Light Orchestra, and then his production work that made George Harrison listenable again, both alone and with the Traveling Wilburys, not to mention giving Tom Petty the biggest record of his life, Jeff Lynne has had his hand, head and harmonies in some of my favorite music of all time. So what if he ruined Dave Edmunds? Everyone was ruined in 1983.

Now, 15 years after his last record of new music under the ELO moniker, Jeff Lynne returns with "Alone In The Universe." After my first, uninterrupted pass through both sides, I thought, "This took 15 years?" I was still struggling to find a comfortable position on my couch with a fresh beverage and Side One was already over. I thought I missed something.  If this was someone other than Jeff Lynne, I might not have bothered with Side Two.

Now if you're expecting some scathing words to follow, you'd be wrong.  I have now visited with "Alone With The Universe" four times and each time, it thrilled me more. And I'll tell you why.

If I'm going to complain about Todd Rundgren making electronic dance music, and Elvis Costello & Joe Jackson making classical records, and Brian Wilson writing third grade lyrics, and Neil Young and Prince churning out mediocre crap for the last 20 years, how can I fault Jeff Lynne for writing ten songs that sound exactly like Jeff Lynne? I can't and I won't.

Everything on this new record is familiar. Every song pays tribute to either something previously released by Jeff Lynne or to one of his heroes, like "I'm Leaving You," an absolutely gorgeous heartbreaker which is basically Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," just sideways, sort of. Or, "Ain't It A Drag," which chugs along like one of those Dylan Wilbury tracks. Or the other eight tunes, all recalling the great chord changes of Lennon & McCartney. This is pop music at its finest.

My friend said, "After all this time, I wanted a masterpiece." He clearly sounded disappointed. I replied, "These songs sound like Jeff Lynne could write them in his sleep," which sounds like I'm tossing them off. But I quickly realized, just because Lynne could write these in his sleep doesn't mean anyone else can or does for that matter. Take "Love & Rain," a simple, mid-tempo groove that, if you can believe, sounds like ELO doing B.B. King, except for what happens at 2:23, a transition so surprising and beautiful, it could only come from the mind of Jeff Lynne. It is exactly these moments which are sprinkled generously throughout the record's 33 minutes, that keep you listening.

My biggest complaint about new artists is "WHERE ARE THE SONGS?' Well, they are here. Ten perfect pop tunes, carefully crafted, beautifully sung. That they may be charted territory doesn't bother me. That there is nothing more thought provoking than a bridge that makes you play "Name That Tune" is alright by me. These songs provide hooks and melodies that will latch onto you and never let go. Is it the long-awaited masterpiece? Not by a long shot, but if you've ever been a fan of Jeff Lynne, I see no reason why some, if not all of "Alone In The Universe" shouldn't make you very happy.


cmealha said...

Could;t agree with you more. There are familiar touches from all eras of his career but it's all done with such grace and talent that it satisfies on all levels. The songwriting, production, performance, arrangement, everything is done well and there's nothing I can fault him for except for possible not being the Second Coming. I've played it 4 times and have not skipped past a single track. You've touched all the same things I thought of while listening. There were touches of ELO, Wilbur's, Armchair Theater, the chord changes and I agree with the Roy Orbison comparison as well. It all sounded familiar in the best possible sense. Can't say enough about it. Top of the list for best of the year.

Anything Should Happen said...

My thoughts virtually entirely Sal. It's a Jeff Lynne album, people may say it's not an ELO album, but Lynne was ELO and you get what you expect which is exactly what you want.

It's consistently good. Armchair Theatre had some cracking individual songs but ran out of steam, this doesn't.

Amazing how time moves on. In 2001 he had to cancel a small tour due to not being able to sell out medium sized venues. Now he's touring 8 Arenas in the UK.

Sal Nunziato said...

I thought "Zoom" was fantastic. I couldn't wait for that tour. He sold 9 tickets at the Nassau Coliseum. Wrong time. I'm fascinated by the fact that "Zoom" hasn't been mentioned in 15 years and now it's suddenly being referred to as crap. I don't think people/journalists have actually heard it. They've read that the tour was cancelled and so, the record must have been crap. Irresponsible, as usual.

wardo said...

My problem with Jeff Lynne's production style is what he does to drums. Even on the records you mentioned above, whether the drummer is Stan Lynch, Ringo Starr, Jim Keltner, Phil Jones or Paul McCartney, all the drums sound like the same "BOOM-THWACK" machine. That would be fine if I wanted to play my own drums on my own album, but he's not likely to produce me anytime soon.

William Repsher said...

It sounds like he's found a nice balance between the over-the-top orchestration he pushed ELO towards as the 70's wore on and his more stripped-down 80's work. I like it after a cursory listen. Not blown away by it, but surely wasn't expecting to be.

And I was a huge ELO fan as a teenager ... ELO and Queen, two sides of the same "more sophisticated pop music" coin, or at least in my mind at the time. Eldorado was his masterpiece, just the right balance of orchestra and pop/rock. (He got the formula down and expanded it on the next three albums, but by Out of the Blue I think I was suffering from the slickness of it all.)

When you say it's about the songs, well, to a point Jeff Lynne had it. While he's never been taken to task the way people like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, etc. have ... were his lyrics after a certain point all that good? I still recall my older brother harassing me mercilessly over the goofy chorus of "Telephone Line." I say this to point out that our generation never had a problem with lyrics that were nowhere near as good as the music ... which I suspect is a large part of the reason why adults much older than us in the 70's looked down on our music, or at least ask yourself if Cole Porter would have come up with something like "Come Sail Away." Songwriting is the complete package, and while I love ELO, always will, I can at leas sense now why an older generation, in the band's prime, would have considered what I listened to as greasy kid's stuff.

jeff said...

I was never a big ELO fan (still remember Randy Newman's vicious take on them) except as a fun car band. By that I mean, I didn't buy their albums but tended to turn their music up louder when I was driving. I remember being a bit surprised when the Wilburys came out and he was a member, but when I heard their albums it made good sense to me. These days, I've come to appreciate their craft and the quality of the songwriting. I thought with the new one that Lynne was trying to make an ELO record with all the ELO elements in there and mostly succeeded. It's not great ELO but it's very very listenable and enjoyable. Nothing wrong with that.

Chris Collins said...

I listen to "Armchair Theatre" at least once a month. And that's a lot for a record that's been out for 20 years.

And AMEN on Tom Petty's "Into The Great Wide Open". I still think it's Petty's best.

hpunch said...

The 4th time's the charm.
I was letdown after tearing off the shrinkwrap and dashing to the stereo.
It kind of went by in a blur.
Looks like I followed your pattern. I just played it for the fourth time and I'm now considering it one of my favorites of the year. Funny. His stuff is usually a hit on the first pitch.
I'm glad I worked the count.

hpunch said...

PS- I also love ZOOM.

Anonymous said...

I listened to it today and enjoyed. Twice! Actually sounded to me more like World Party than ELO. Must have something to do with some transitive property of Beatles worship.

Bruce H

Anonymous said...

Also, just saw this respectful review on Pitchfork (which throws some praise Zoom's way at the end).

Bruce H

DaveF said...

I couldn't agree more. It took a few spins to eventually sink in and I have grown to appreciate Jeff's new record more with each run through. I had the same reaction with Dave Gilmour's Rattle That took awhile.
As for Brian Wilson...I don't understand the hostility. I think No Pier Pressure is absolutely the best solo (and accessible) music he's done. I hold "Whatever Happened," with one of his best songs ever. A beautiful ballad up there with "Don't Worry Baby."
There I said let the flaming commence.

Jeff in Denton TX said...

I've given it one listen so far and am digging it. BTW--I like Dave Edmunds' Lynne-produced "Information" album. The again, I also think ELO's "Time" album is underrated and an improvement on its predecessor, the overly-discofied "Discovery."

dogbreath said...

For what it's worth I've been well taken with the album: it contains all of Lynne's trademarks of writing, arranging, performing and producing that you'd expect (the best ELO record for 20 years as a mate said). Short but highly enjoyable (the record, not Mr Lynne) and there's a couple of bonus tracks available to give you a bit more beef (or veg if you're so inclined) for your buck. Plus my auditory experience was enhanced by seeing the man and band perform some of the new stuff plus ELO oldies in a BBC TV concert.

Sal Nunziato said...

@Dave F

"I hold "Whatever Happened," with one of his best songs ever. A beautiful ballad up there with "Don't Worry Baby."

I'm sorry, but I just cannot put this track anywhere near "Don't Worry Baby." I'll give you this, it's the best track on "No Pier Pressure." But, some of the material on that record is unlistenable and that is how I've felt about all of Brian's solo material. I love the man. I love the Beach Boys. But I can't ignore the way he sounds. I feel like I'm watching a kid in a school play, pulling for all involved, but ultimately cringing inside.

cmealha said...

And do I hear a tinge of "Mr. Moonlight" at the end of the chorus in "Blue"

A walk in the woods said...

I like the new record... especially the song "The Sun Will Shine On You," with which I've been a bit obsessed over the last few days - playing on repeat.