Jeff Lynne has become a universe unto himself in the last 40 years. A Beatles freak that created his own unique brand of power pop through studio inventiveness and the sheer love of melody. He did his fair share of radio love in the 70s. Is there anyone that grew up in the 70s that doesn’t have some ELP-scored moment? “Telephone Line”, “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head”, “Strange Magic”, “Turn To Stone”, and “Livin’ Thing” were massive hits and played in countless car rides and late night AM transistor radio listenings. School dances, make out sessions, break up heartbreaks, and even your melancholy moments all at one point or another had Mr. Lynne and ELO backing them up. For me, it was a Wheaties commercial. Yes, a Wheaties commercial starring none other than Caitlyn Jenner(well, in 1980 she was still known as Bruce Jenner and was an Olympic champion.) The commercial was soundtracked by ELO’s “Hold On Tight” and that song always stuck with me. It wasn’t until I was 19 years old and had bought the ELO album Time on a whim that all those childhood memories came rushing back. As I listened to the album in my bedroom “Hold On Tight” came on and I was floored. I’d never known who sang the song and when I realized it was the band I was currently listening to that I’d just randomly bought their CD that evening I couldn’t believe it. This began my descent into an ELO/Jeff Lynne wormhole that would last for years.
Not many can have a successful career; first as a recording artist then as a sought-after producer. Jeff Lynne did that. In the 70s he was the leader of ELO, then in the 80s he produced albums for George Harrison, Tom Petty, and also the supergroup Traveling Wilburys(of which he was also a member.) He created the “Jeff Lynne sound”, which consisted of chorus-y, snappy snare and bright chiming guitar. It’s one of those sounds that you never forget and it makes albums like Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Lynne’s own Armchair Theater such timeless and classic albums. Unfortunately it’s also like a watermark that indelibly dates the songs and albums. It’s a calling card with a catchy phrase you never forget. After awhile though that catchy phrase goes from clever to kind of kitchy.
Jeff Lynne has returned after a rather quiet 15 years(give or take some producing here and a covers album there) and has given us Jeff Lynne’s ELO. Alone In The Universe is most definitely a Jeff Lynne album. You like soaring harmonies, melodies for miles, and a sprinkle of heartbreak for good measure? Then step inside Mr. Lynne’s guitar-shaped rocket ship and enjoy.
I’m not sure what constitutes an ELO album anymore, as opposed to just a Jeff Lynne album. They’re really hard to tell apart at this point. I suppose there’s less spaced-out rockabilly and Roy Orbison-isms on an ELO album than say a solo Lynne record. Alone In The Universe revisits some familiar ELO territory, in particular Face The Music and A New World Record-era ELO. The “Telephone Line”-like “When I Was A Boy” will make you feel all warm and fuzzy, while “Dirty To The Bone” feels like Lynne revisiting the few moments of 80s ELO that weren’t dreadful. “When The Night Comes” has a stunted reggae vibe, like Lynne can’t get loose enough in the rhythm department to get the right amount of skank. Still, it comes across as a decent enough Jeff Lynne song.
The production touches Jeff Lynne is known for have been mellowed over time, like a leather chair that has been worn down over years of use. The snare isn’t quite as snappy as it used to be, which is a good thing and a good fit for the weathered voice that emerges from that bearded face.
Alone In The Universe is worth the price of admission just to have two exquisite tracks. “The Sun Will Shine On You” is regal and like floating through space in some magical bubble powered by a truly “strange magic”. This song is proof Mr. Lynne should continue to make music until he no longer can. “Ain’t It A Drag” is a jangle rock track that sounds like what would happen if the Traveling Wilburys had been produced by Jon Brion on a coffee buzz. It’s a fun rock ‘n roll number that Lynne might’ve thrown at us in his Armchair Theater days.
So if you’re looking for A New World Record, Face The Music, or Out Of The Blue, then go listen to those albums. Alone In The Universe isn’t those records. It is, however, Jeff Lynne making the best of getting old. It’s also a couple Jeff Lynne classics and a handful of pretty decent songs.
7.5 out of 10