15 years after his last album that took 15 years to arrive, Jeff Lynne is back, once again operating under the ELO banner, with an album that straddles his own tendencies toward classic rock and the trademark sound that his fans all but demand anytime he surfaces.
It’s not as if he’s been completely dormant during this time: an album of re-recorded-all-by-himself ELO covers, some of them fairly close to the sound of the originals, as well as an album of rock covers of classic hits and standards, done in Lynne’s trademark style. Armchair Theatre, his 1990 solo album, was reissued with bonus tracks. He’s also been producing albums for the likes of Joe Walsh and Bryan Adams, so it’s not as if he and his sound have gone completely underground.
But what has been missing is Jeff Lynne, writing new songs and performing and producing them himself. Long Wave and Mr. Blue Sky, nice as they were, were covers albums. Alone In The Universe is what Lynne/ELO fans have really been waiting for: new music from that familiar, laid-back voice. “When I Was A Boy” opens the album with languid nostalgia, perhaps as autobiographical a song as we’re ever likely to hear from Lynne, chronicling his childhood love of music that led to a life of writing and performing. There are hints of strings, all synthesized/sampled, though they’re kept far enough in the background that it doesn’t break the song.
“Love And Rain” picks up the tempo with a guitar groove reminiscent of “Showdown”‘s clavinet, while “Dirty To The Bone” bestows a cheerful sound upon some surprisingly biting (and occasionally silly) lyrics. What follows next is a one-two punch of two of the album’s best numbers, the mesmerizing “When The Night Comes” and the strangely relaxing and uplifting “The Sun Will Shine”. “When The Night Comes” takes some tried-and-true elements, such as a chorus that owes more than a little bit to the chorus of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Not Alone Any More”, and sets them to a beat that’s as close to reggae as Lynne’s ever likely to stray. “The Sun Will Shine” is a gently uplifting song with some of Lynne’s best lyrics in ages, with a soothing synth-and-guitar wash in the background. (In the electronic press kit interview for the album, Lynne says he wrote it to help a friend who was depressed; I can tell you that it does work in cheering up someone in dire straits.) “Ain’t It A Drag” is a delightfully cheery song about karma catching up with someone who’s done you wrong, while “All My Life” is a more plaintive, idealized love song, but a very pretty one.
“I’m Leaving You” sees Lynne going for the full Orbison, which is a gutsy thing to do because, as Bruce Springsteen himself once said, no one can sing like Roy Orbison. Still, this is a better approximation than most could manage. “One Step At A Time”, added at a late stage out of concern that the album didn’t have enough upbeat tracks, is a curious mix of a driving rhythm that wouldn’t have been out of place on Discovery, slathered with languid slide guitar that is simultaneously at odds with that rhythm and yet fits over it nicely. (And, for the first time in many years, it’s an ELO song with more cowbell!)
“Alone In The Universe” brings the album to a close in its intended configuration, Lynne’s ode to – of all things – space probe Voyager 1, outbound from the edge of the solar system, and it turns out to be the most ELO-ish song of the entire album, in both subject matter and presentation. Where Zoom might’ve left some fans thinking that it was an ELO album in name only, this album’s title track demonstrates that ELO is back in more than name only, even if it’s just Jeff Lynne in his studio. The sound of ELO is back as well.
Various deluxe versions of the album somewhat jarringly add anywhere from two to three extra songs after that perfect closure, from the country-rock of “Fault Line” (probably inspired by Lynne’s proximity to San Andreas), “Blue” (an addictively Wilbury-ish number), and the very ’80s-ish “On My Mind” (whose production touches include helicopters flying overhead for some reason).
Assembled as a musical package, Alone In The Universe is almost everything I’ve missed about ELO, tied up with a bow – this is why I still get excited to hear about Jeff Lynne heading into a studio, and why I hope he doesn’t keep taking off 15 years between albums.
- When I Was A Boy (3:12)
- Love And Rain (3:30)
- Dirty To The Bone (3:06)
- When The Night Comes (3:22)
- The Sun Will Shine On You (3:30)
- Ain’t It A Drag (2:36)
- All My Life (2:51)
- I’m Leaving You (3:08)
- One Step At A Time (3:21)
- Alone In The Universe (3:55)
- Fault Line (2:07)
- Blue (2:36)
- On My Mind (3:09)
Released by: Columbia
Release date: November 13, 2015
Total running time: 32:23 (standard edition/LP), 37:06 (deluxe CD/download), 40:23 (Japanese Blu-Spec CD)