Music Review: Alone in the Universe/Jeff Lynne’s ELO

4.5 out of 5 stars

by Gargs Allard

Back in 1973 when Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood finally went their separate ways due to disagreements where to take their new group Electric light Orchestra, a band that was suppose to pick up where the Beatles left off only with added wind instruments and strings, the vestiges of the sixties groups The Move and Idle Wind that they were respectively a part of were left far behind and Wood’s glam-cello-rock group Wizzard was born, living a significant but rather short life for a few years and then seemingly vanishing into the oblivion of British prog-rock lore.

Lynne’s ELO, however, came into full bloom and the rest was rock music history – a glorious flower garden that was to live a long and legendary life, admired on both sides of the pond, and is now experiencing perhaps it’s third Indian summer.

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To think of everything else Lynne has done, from producing Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, The Threetles (George, Paul, Ringo and John’s ghostly voice), having a neat little solo career and being a member of the Traveling Wilbury’s, certainly boggles the mind and places him in musical genius status in the minds of many fans and critics.

Now, as time passes and the very last baby boomers like myself, who were born around 1964, finally feel what it’s like to be 20 years older than one who should be trusted, I suspect it gets more and more difficult to find new music that one can identify with.

Now, I only say “I suspect” because admittedly I am in a rare position as a fledgling musicologist who gets to listen to new music and has to cross over generational fences all the time like they were mere cracks on the sidewalk of life and who has become just as comfortable and interested in listening to anything decent that has come out since the late 1920s until now.

Still,  I must admit when new music that follows my era comes out – “my era” meaning from the heavily Beatles-influenced seventies to New Wave to  Alternative Rock and Grunge (from when I was a boy-child through my 20’s ), in other words, young enough that the dopamine and norepinephrine were still firing in my brain and blood like automatic assault weapons and Friday and Saturday nights were still filled with infinite possibilities – sorry, but I get a little sentimental. But just because I get so emotional doesn’t mean I can’t be objective and or that the music of “my time” wasn’t any good.

A new ELO album is one such record that could certainly be good and get my emotions going at the same time; and like Pavlov’s dog, as soon as I heard Jeff Lynne’s familiar voice in the opening track of “When I Was a Boy,” a sweet bell of memories went off in my head, my ears perked up and I started salivating.

Add to the fact that it’s been a while: 1986 since ELO made an album with band intact, Balance of Power; 2001’s Zoom, with only Richard Tandy on board from the original band and help from George Harrison; as well as Lynne’s solo efforts: Armchair Theatre (1990) and Long Wave (2012), which was essentially a collection of covers.

Electric Light Orchestra is called Jeff Lynne’s ELO these days because Jeff is now practically solo – only working with bassist Richard Tandy, and because former ELO member Bev Bevan formed ELO II in the 1990s, although Bevan sold full rights to the name back to Lynne when after he retired.

To start the LP, “When I Was a Boy” finds Lynne thinking back to his formative years as a child in beautiful fashion when he was passed the sacred baton of music, knowing that he didn’t want a job like normal people but rather that he was meant to sing – “Don’t want a job cause it drives me crazy/Just want to sing ‘Do you love me, baby?’ When I was a boy I had a dream” and “The radio waves kept me company in those beautiful days when there was no money.”

Sometimes I have imagined that Jeff Lynne must have come to earth as a baby by floating down via a melody-cloud from a planet of gandharvas or singing angels. This first track does nothing to thwart this theory. He was and is indeed a chosen one and the track sounds, by the way, like ELO has aged like a fine wine.

“Love and Rain,” replete with female background singers, is a melancholy number, with a half-blues, half-funk bass line that predominates and a classic Wilbury’s guitar somewhere just five-minutes west of George Harrison Way.

The beginning melody of “Dirty to the Bone,” perhaps my favorite number on the album, sounds somewhat similar to one of my favorites from 2001’s Zoom, namely “Moment in Paradise.” But instead of being a song about a girl who brings one up from the depths of despair: “She told me it’s my duty to save my soul – to save it for someone,” it turns out to be its antithesis: “She’ll drag you down until you drown in sorrow – She’s dirty to the bone.”

A central theme of Alone in the Universe seems to be about isolation and loneliness. Sounding like the offspring of ELO’s hit from yesteryear “Telephone Line,” Lynne emotionally invests the song “When the Night Comes” with the same soulful feeling of longing: “When the night comes, I think of you/ When the night comes, I feel midnight blue.” One doesn’t know if he singing about a lost love or a dear friend like George Harrison who once penned a song called “Midnight Blue” when he was divorcing his estranged wife Pattie, and which equaled the same sort of longing of the soul for company. One may perhaps think that even more after they hear the Harrison-esque guitar solo.

Even the most positive-sounding song title, “The Sun Will Shine on You,” is not all walking on an ocean breeze on a fine summer day. Instead it speaks of holding on through the bad times to get to the good times – as there is darkness and despair, there has to be light and happiness. The spacey,’80s-sounding number states, “You got to learn how to cry before you learn how to fall/ You’ve got to turn from the darkness and go through it all.” When one lives this life long enough with any type of alertness, they know they have to cultivate knowledge and nescience side by side in order to gain wisdom.

“Ain’t it a Drag” is one of the catchiest songs on the album but with the age-old theme of two people being in love but never getting the timing right – “Tomorrow brings the same old sun that never shone our way. Ain’t it a drag, babe – you’re telling me.”

“All My Life,” is a song that ends much like the George Harrison song that Lynne produced, “When We Was Fab.” This tune, yet another heavenly melody, has an impressive guitar line and harmonic backing vocals, and is about meeting the “one” or that person we always knew was there and who would finally come as if by destiny, as if it was meant to be:

All my life I was looking for you
And suddenly you were there.
All my life I knew what I would do –
Just stand there like a fool and stare.

All my life.
All my life.

I’m so glad I found you.
I just wanna be around you.
All my life.

“I’m Leaving You” is another dream-like song with a weeping slide-guitar that could kill anyone who was born with even half a heart. The words spin the yarn of a fairy tale past or long-standing love affair that turns into a sad parting of ways after finding somebody new. It tells of the death of a relationship and is filled with tear-stained sentimentality that almost everyone in the world can identify with, “But just before you go, there’s something you should know: I’ve found somebody new and I’m leaving you.” Sounds like he wrote this almost with Roy Orbison in mind as the lead vocalist.

“One Step at a Time” is an infectious tune that probably would have been a hit single if this was 1979. Its premise concerns a close person in someone’s life who gives one the silent treatment or goes missing in action in a relationship. It is also about encouraging and helping that someone to pull through a tough time, whether it is within a relationship between the two of them or in the mis-communicator’s life  in general. It gives the message that the speaker is there for the person and everything is going to be all right. “Talk to me with the sadness in your eyes/ Everything will soon be better…”

The title track is another one of Lynne’s melodic mini-masterpieces. When he sings “Alone in the universe – that’s how it feels when you are gone/I’m such a long long way from home” it can send shivers down even the most bestial spine. The guitars and keyboards create an otherworldly atmosphere as Lynne cries, “No matter where that I may roam, I’m such a long long way from home.”

One better buy this record if he or she knows what’s musically good for them. People like Jeff Lynne don’t come around every day, and it’s like he said in “When the Night Comes”:

Now’s the time,
I see the twilight coming on
Now’s the time,
Pretty soon they’ll all be gone.

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