Alone in the Universe represents The Electric Light Orchestra's first album of new material in fourteen years. Back in 2001, when Zoom was released, low ticket sales led to the cancellation of their North American tour. This year, however, I think the world is more than ready to receive more of what ELO has to offer. Not only that, but Jeff Lynne's ELO is more than prepared to bring everything to the table.
Bands with distinct sounds, particularly ones that have been around over twenty years, with lengthy breaks in-between albums can sound stale, even when the music is structurally sound, or can sound tired, even with modern recording techniques. Yet as Alone in the Universe begins, all one can think of is that they are listening to a fresh new project.
The album begins softly with "When I was a Boy," a track that could trick the unsuspecting listener into thinking they're listening to a new Beatles album. Of course, we all know it isn't The Beatles, but ELO was created to (in the founders' minds) pick up where The Beatles left off. John Lennon and George Harrison were both big fans of the work ELO was doing as well, and Lynne even produced Harrison's Cloud Nine and Brainwashed. So it's not tough or wrong to hear a Beatles sound in their tracks. "When I was a Boy" marries the soft piano sound of Lennon's "Imagine" with Lynne's signature style of lyricism. Many of the techniques utilized on George Harrison's later 80s work (circa "When We Was Fab") are updated for the song as well. Through it all though, the soft embroidery of the typical ELO sound is sewn. One can't help but be grateful that Lynne's voice is holding up quite nicely, as it certainly does the trick for the song. One slightly notable difference that can be heard in the song, and album as a whole, which makes it more Harrison-esque, is that they have replaced many of the orchestral sounds with a slide-guitar.
Even the video brings to mind the "Free as a Bird" promotional film (a song Lynne also produced).
Alone in the Universe is also the first ELO album since George Harrison's death, and one can't help but feel that his good friend Jeff Lynne has now more specifically attempted to pick up where Harrison left off. After all, Lynne and Dhani Harrison completed Brainwashed, the last of Harrison's unfinished work.
If you're wondering about this theory, I recommend you listen to "Cloud Nine," the title track of the aforementioned Harrison album before checking out "Love and Rain," another gorgeous Lynne composition. The two songs aren't twins, but they are certainly estranged brothers. A sombre tone accompanies another of many Lynne tracks with a rain motif.
Or course, the sun returns for "Dirty to the Bone," a very ELO composition, which gives a 70s sound a modern feel. Although slightly lacking in energy and lyrics, "Dirty to the Bone" is really a reminder of what ELO have innovated on their own, as is "When the Night Comes," another track with retro vibes restrained by modern production.
"Sun Will Shine on You" is a very different piece for Lynne vocally, beginning with a near-acapella intro compared to the band's usual sound. The positivity of tracks like "Mr. Blue Sky" is echoed with a more acoustic vibe. The verse works slowly and quietly, sympathetic to the sadness the subject of the song is experiencing, while the chorus becomes uplifting each time, offering a very friend-like pep-talk out of sadness. Yet again, the Harrison-like slide guitar tiptoes around in the background.
In the spirit of more energetic earlier ELO songs, "Ain't it a Drag" also borrows from fifties sounds. Lynne has never been the most energetic songsman, but here the reservation is definitely a plus. He doesn't try too hard to sound young or hip, and that is often the saving grace of this album.
Next, Lynne sings what could surely become someone's wedding song with "All My Life," a beautiful ELO ballad, followed immediately by a breakup song, "I'm Leaving You." "I'm Leaving You" is oddly pleasant for the subject matter, but is still one of the weaker tunes on the album.
"One Step at a Time" sounds the closest to the late 70s work of the band, with only a few modern touches (including a guitar bridge, which is more of a drawback than anything). Overall though, "One Step at a Time" is quite solid.
Closing the album is the title track, "Alone in the Universe." It begins slowly, with the sound and energy building. It's a great wrap-up for the album, bringing everything together with the musical poetry Lynne has such a knack for.
Lynne is the only founding member of ELO to work on Alone in the Universe, making Jeff Lynne's ELO a polite (and possibly lawsuit-preventing) way to title the group who did work on it. Lynne's production and arranging can be heard in everything he involves himself in. I know there are those who dislike that fact, much as Phil Spector's work is often disliked. But I feel Lynne has flair. Alone in the Universe is a great new piece for fans of the band. In addition to that, anyone who has been jonesing for new George Harrison material should also give the album a listen. I can't guarantee that all Beatles fans will love it, but Harrison fans will sense his presence, and feel the appreciation he would have had for the album.
This is of course, simplifying all of the album's complexities down to a couple of caricatures, which isn't fair. The album soars as any new album is capable of. The songs are artistic in their composition. The sound is congruent with the band's earlier work, while moving onward, looking to the future without trying too hard to be modern. I can only hope this album will be successful enough for more endeavours by Jeff Lynne's ELO in the near future.
|Producer and founding member of ELO, Jeff Lynne.|
Alone in the World is out November 13th and can be purchased here.