Dusting ‘Em Off: Electric Light Orchestra – Eldorado

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Electric Light Orchestra was formed in 1970 by Roy Wood and band mastermind Jeff Lynne with the purpose of crafting pop songs with classical overtones that, as Lynne famously declared would be “picking up where The Beatles left off.” While their self-titled 1971 debut was a true tribute to the later stylings of the former mopheads, chock full of crunchy ’70s nuggets with a penchant for classicism, it wasn’t until their 1974 masterpiece Eldorado that Lynne and co. went the way of the mudskipper, taking the next evolutionary step in mainstream rock and roll. In the end, it was an album that secured their own innovate musical identity rather than continue to ape those little lads from Liverpool.

Now first thing’s first. Eldorado is a concept album through and through, going as far as to open and close with an “Eldorado Overture” and “Eldorado Finale”, elaborate orchestra pieces both accompanied with eerie narration. But by keeping the story relatively simple and malleable, Lynne skirts being heavy handed, a typical pitfall in the world of conceptual rock. The plot is this: the protagonist is a working class daydreamer, so bored with his own life that he escapes to a fantasy realm that is the namesake of the album. By the self-titled penultimate track, he has been forced back to reality and longs to return to Eldorado.

Each song is essentially the protagonist playing a different character, with the exception of “Illusions In G Minor”, which has him describing his visions to a psychiatrist mixed with icons of rock and roll. Because Lynne never gets too bogged down in story, he is able to focus on the variety found in the music, bending the genre of each track to reflect whatever fantastical scenarios the listener is in. He’s much more concerned with atmosphere and mood than tedious plot details. “Boy Blue”, an anti-war tune that takes place during the Crusades, opens with a flourish of Medieval trumpets and strings, “Illusions In G Minor” is a sped up, roadhouse blues cut, the dreamy “Mr. Kingdom” verges on psychedelia, and so on.

Another key ingredient to Eldorado’s success is its musical duality. Rather than try and find a middle ground for his pop rock and classical leanings, Lynne amped them up in equal doses for his masterpiece, cutting some of the most abrasive rock songs of his career while having them backed by a full orchestra. Up until this album, everything had been overdubbed by three musicians, but Eldorado is ELO on steroids, swirling like a cyclone in opposite directions for an album that can be enjoyed by both Beatles and Bach fans alike.

“Laredo Tornado” is a grimy rocker driven by a sporadic guitar solo and a cascade of violins and fiddles. It’s an odd triumvirate of passionate baroque, haystack footstomp, and spaced out ’70s sweetness, but never feels convoluted. The only time Lynne’s Beatles obsession rears its giddy head is on “Mr. Kingdom”, which, although a great, bittersweet chunk of nostalgia wax, blatantly steals the central melody from “Across The Universe.” Fortunately for us, Lynne would exercise his admiration for the Fab Four by actually collaborating with one of them (along with a handful of other rock legends) in his later career with the shortlived supergroup, The Travelling Wilburys.

In the wake of The Hazards Of Love, The Decemberists’ latest outing and (along with Green Day’s American Idiot) easily the best concept album released in the last decade, Eldorado is more than worth the listen. It’s a testament to how effective a concept album can be when the main emphasis is still placed on the most important aspect of all: the music itself.

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