Release Date: Nov 13, 2015
Record label: RCA
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Contemporary Pop/Rock
Buoyed by the success of last summer’s Hyde Park gig, Jeff Lynne has put together only the second ELO album in 29 years. It covers familiar ground, with the usual mixture of grandiose balladry and harmony-drenched, uptempo rockers. While he only once comes close to matching the pop perfection of his 70s imperial phase (on the lushly melancholic One Step at a Time), there’s plenty to enjoy elsewhere.
One of the great joys in recent years was seeing Jeff Lynne’s startled delight at the rapturous reception ELO received at the BBC Hyde Park concert in 2014. This has inspired him to release the first ELO record since 2001’s frankly unloved Zoom. As a result, Alone In The Universe is his most eagerly anticipated album since Time in 1980. I’m delighted to report that few will be disappointed.
Alone in the Universe isn't the first Jeff Lynne album of the 21st century, nor is it the first Electric Light Orchestra of the 21st century. That honor belongs to Zoom, a 2001 comeback that faded quickly into history books, its lack of success blamed in some quarters on Lynne's reluctance to tour. If Jeff didn't want to hit the road, his old bandmate Bev Bevan had no problem constituting a lineup and touring under the name ELO Part II, whose presence somewhat explains why Alone in the Universe is credited to the somewhat convoluted Jeff Lynne's ELO -- a truncation of the band's full name that also assigns credit where it's due, as most listeners associate this majestic post-Abbey Road pop with Lynne alone.
For years, it seemed that Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra had gotten lost in the zeitgeist. When Tim Heidecker “took over” Rolling Stone, he reasoned that it’s odd that Tom Petty is worthy of a cover story and Lynne isn’t. ELO was once the biggest rock band on the planet, a legitimate heir to the Beatles’ pop rock throne in the ’70s, and yet they had become a band best known for their placement in advertisements and film soundtracks.
ELO has been largely dormant since they released their thirteenth album in 2001. And yet, 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 & Palmer or Styx, which is to say, not very well.
Electric Light Orchestra's symphonic pop has influenced acts from Flaming Lips to Daft Punk. Yet only one man can sound exactly like ELO, and that's its leader Jeff Lynne, whose effusive sonic stamp radiates through the hits he helmed and helped write for Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, the Travelling Wilburys and others. Despite a few recent production gigs for Joe Walsh and Bryan Adams, though, Lynne's skills haven't been properly showcased in years: His previous album, 2012's Long Wave, was comprised of covers, and the last proper ELO record came out way back in 2001.
Jeff Lynne’s ELOAlone in the Universe(Columbia)Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars MIA after 2001’s surprisingly solid Zoom, Jeff Lynne has returned to music in a big way. A spectacular sold-out 2014 concert with full orchestration in front of 50,000 fans at London’s Hyde Park (recently out on DVD) solidified ELO’s appeal as a ’70s/’80s act with songs that still connected. And even if Lynne’s unnecessary 2012 solo note-for-note re-creation of the band’s hits didn’t exactly scream that his pop muse had returned, it at least showed his talent was still in top form.
The last time Jeff Lynne released an ELO album, in 2001, times weren’t so propitious: Zoom stalled commercially, and a planned US tour was cancelled. Last year though, he managed to sell 50,000 tickets for a gig at Hyde Park in London in 50 minutes, and the public’s appetite for super-lush Beatlesque pop has been revived enough to justify a new album. All the ELO trademarks are there: the leaps into falsetto, the sense of grandeur, the arrangements ornate enough to decorate a baroque cathedral.
With his mix of antsy orchestration, falsetto choirs, talking guitar lines, and willowing piano chords, ELO's Jeff Lynne created the most distinct studio vernacular of the 1970s, though his legacy has endured less than that of his peers. It's this precise sound that initially conjures an immediate familiarity on Alone in the Universe, the first proper ELO album in 14 years. Ten seconds into the first track, “When I Was a Boy,” a weeping piano and quivering strings frame Lynne's space-boy voice.
Look, let’s not beat around the bush here: you know exactly what Alone in the Universe sounds like. It’s an ELO record - Jeff Lynne’s ELO, sorry – and Jeff Lynne is, as my friend and colleague pointed out the other week, a man who even made The Beatles sound like ELO. ‘When I Was a Boy’ opens the album with the exact – I mean exact – same piano line as ‘Can’t Get It Out of My Head’.
First album as ELO for 14 years from Mr Blue Sky, and it’s been well worth the wait. The last album Jeff Lynne released was 2012’s Long Wave, a collection of covers of the sort of music (Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry) he grew up listening to in Birmingham. But the last album bearing the ELO imprint was 2001’s Zoom, a largely solo affair bearing contributions from a cast of 10, including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, ex-squeeze Rosie Vela and daughter Laura Lynne on backing vocals.
If punk’s attack on bloated ‘70s rock took down any act unfairly, it was the Electric Light Orchestra. Their grand orchestral rock epitomised everything overblown, expensive and in-the-way that Lydon’s lot were out to drag off their pedestals like giant statues of despots. But ELO only struck such a deep cultural chord – their double-album masterpiece ‘Out Of The Blue’ shifted over 3 million copies in 1977 and they racked up 50 million in the band’s lifetime – because frontman Jeff Lynne was amongst the era’s finest crafters of almost-The Beatles pop tunes.
For the past 30 years, Jeff Lynne probably has been best known as a collaborator of choice for the likes of Tom Petty, Ringo Starr, and the late George Harrison, and for his merry band the Traveling Wilburys. Now, after a nearly 15-year hiatus, the British pop visionary reclaims the band name that originally brought him to prominence. As the moniker makes clear, this is practically a one-man-band affair, yet there’s no dearth of signature ELO hallmarks.