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. Lynne himself focused on production after working with George Harrison on 1987’s Cloud Nine and The Traveling Wilburys, of which he is probably the least famous but possibly most talented member.
After some forgotten years, it’s clear that ELO did make their mark with their forward-thinking production and skillful use of synthesizers. Ed Sheeran shared the stage with the band at this year’s Grammys well before this album was announced, and their performance even got Sir Paul McCartney to stand up and shake his groove thing.
It’s fitting, then, that 2015 sees Lynne’s return as a rebranded Electric Light Orchestra: Jeff Lynne’s ELO. The first record to bear those three letters since 2001’s Zoom, Alone in the Universe stays within the sounds we know of the group — everything here is definitely a pop song — while using technological advances to replace the bleeps and bloops of yesteryear. Gone are the artificial beeps of “Telephone” or the dense orchestra of “Livin’ Thing”; replacing them are layers of piano and subtle strings. Forget about the disco of “Shine a Little Love”. Instead, we get the retro reggae of “When the Night Comes”.
Opening single “When I Was A Boy” sets the tone for the rest of the album. A pop ballad, it’s not remarkably catchy or unprecedented, but what it lacks in wit it makes up for in earnestness. Like Brian Wilson’s “Love & Mercy”, it’s just one chord progression with changing melody and evolving production. There’s a veteran’s coy smirk in his lyrics: He’s not just commenting on how good the times were when he was young, but how he still feels the same way. “Don’t want to work on the milk or the bread/ Just want to play my guitar instead.” It verges on cheesy, but succeeds in capturing a man longing for his youth.
While some of it falls short of past greatness, the core of the album shows Lynne hasn’t lost his mad genius after more than a decade of silence. Alone in the Universe is some of the best (and most consistent) work he’s created, but it’s still set in an established path, missing the big hit to push it over. When Lynne writes hooks, you get the feeling he could whip out Top 40 tunes faster than Max Martin if he wanted to — but he doesn’t. The entire second half of the album is a collection of songs you’ll have stuck in your head, wondering how they wormed their way in there.
The closest thing to another ELO hit is probably “One Step at a Time”. It feels like a quick dance jam, but its echoing backing vocals give it a shiver of something more — and a descending modulation gives it the ELO trademark smirk. Even when it’s being simple, there’s a deeper musicianship going on than anywhere else. Cowbells set an optimistic chorus; a guitar solo turns the mood from upbeat to pessimistic; and the production goes minimal as Lynne’s voice grows desperate: “Talk to me/ With the sadness in your eyes/ Everything will soon be better/ You’ll soon begin to realize/ Come on and talk to me.”
ELO once branded themselves the future of pop. Now 68, Lynne is back and sounding like the present without the gimmickry of forced narratives or the club drum sounds of 2015. The title track epitomizes this, coming across more like a modern Mott the Hoople doing a ballad than an elder trying to play catchup. It’s easy to get lost in the record’s 10 tracks over and over, if not intentionally then by accident. Lynne may be crying out after his failed return in 2001, wondering if he’s all alone out there, but if Alone in the Universe shows us anything, it’s that a good song is always a good song.
Essential Tracks: “Ain’t It a Drag”, “Alone in the Universe”, and “One Step at A Time”