The fifth Beatle indulges his inner Fab Four
Nobody really knew where to place the Electric Light Orchestra in the 1970s. They were too earnestly beardy for glam, too poppy for prog, never sexy enough for bubblegum pop, and rather too studiocentric to be an ongoing stadium rock concern. John Lennon’s observation when he heard Eldorado – that ELO were making the kind of music The Beatles might have made had they continued – wasn’t really taken seriously until years later, when Jeff Lynne produced “Free As A Bird” and the so-called “Threetles” sessions.
The idea of ELO as a continuity Fab Four has never been stronger than it is on Alone In The Universe. Although recorded in Jeff Lynne’s home studio in Beverly Hills, every track seems to be sprinkled with a touch of Abbey Road fairydust. Opener “When I Was A Boy”, in particular, is a wonderfully dreamy piece of ’60s nostalgia from the perspective of an adolescent Lynne. “Don’t wanna job cos it drives me crazy/Just wanna scream, ‘Do you love me baby?’,” he croons, over Lennon-style piano vamping, McCartney-esque plagal cadences, swooping “Walrus” cello effects and the finest guitar solo that George Harrison never played. What’s particularly astonishing is that Lynne is doing absolutely everything here – vocals, harmonies, piano, bass, guitars, drums, programming – like John, Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin melded into one hairy Omnibeatle.
“All My Life” is one of those wonderfully obvious songs that you can’t believe you’ve not heard before – like a hybrid of “In My Life” and “When We Were Fab”. The title track is a dreamy McCartney ballad set to Pet Sounds harmonies. “Ain’t It A Drag” switches the dial back to the Ed Sullivan Show, with Lynne multi-tracking those pitch-perfect “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” harmonies and chiming Harrison Rickenbackers.
When he’s not paying homage to the Fab Four, there are nods to other old pals. “I’m Leaving You” is a rather vicious kiss-off ballad that’s about as close as one could get to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” without violating copyright law. “Just before you go,” he sighs over a dramatic Cuban rhythm, as if savouring the moment, “there’s something you should know/I’ve found somebody else/And I’m leaving you”.
And there are bits where Lynne relives past glories. “Evil Woman” is recast twice – lyrically on the waspish and embittered “Dirty To The Bone” (“She’ll drag you down/Until you drown”) and sonically on “One Step At A Time” (with the same slinky guitar riffs and shrieking, sugar-coated chorus). Best of all is the lovely, woozy “The Sun Will Shine On You”, where Lynne’s voices – the bear-like baritone and the crystalline falsetto harmonies – combine to create his finest ballad since “Telephone Line”.
When Lynne last released an album, 2001’s Zoom, the sales were so disappointing that a proposed world tour was cancelled. In the intervening 14 years, EMI and Epic Records have released ten separate ELO greatest hits collections. Lynne has duetted at the Grammys with Dave Grohl and then Ed Sheeran, got his own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, been sampled by dozens of artists – from Dilla to Daft Punk, Common to the Pussycat Dolls – and headlined to 50,000 ecstatic fans at Hyde Park.
He’s morphed from ignorable yesterday’s man to national treasure, the high priest of the guilty pleasure, the writer of our unofficial national anthems. And Alone In The Universe is an album that celebrates that. There is nothing here that breaks new ground; no ill-advised dabbling in contemporary technology and – the slight reggae skank in “When The Night Comes” notwithstanding – no unexpected jolts. This is a seasoned master of what he does operating in his comfort zone, and doing it very well indeed.
This is your first album of original material in 14 years. Have you been writing all the time?
I’m in my studio most days, and I write all the time, usually on piano, sometimes on guitar. I write bits, rather than whole tunes. I have millions of bits – chord sequences, fragments of melody, odd lyrics – and sometimes I find a missing piece from those bits. I started making this album about 18 months ago, but there are “bits” on here that date back more than a decade.
Your 2012 solo album, Long Wave, covered old jazz and early rock’n’roll classics. Do you think this album has a similarly nostalgic vibe?
Yes, definitely. I’m trying to write nice songs in that classic style. When I started, old fashioned was from the 1930s! Nowadays it’s ’60s, ’70s. Was it a Beatles tribute? Not really, but I can see why you’d ask that. But yes, “I’m Leaving You” is certainly my attempt at the kind of song Roy Orbison would do.
Is it true that you always used to leave the lyrics ’til last?
It was the thing I’d dread. I’d have all these nice tunes and the orchestra and the backing tracks and harmonies laid down. Then I’d have to chain myself up to write the words. It was my least favourite thing. I’d often write four or five alternate tunes for each chord sequence, so only I knew what the song would sound like until we mixed it! It kept you on your toes, but nowadays I try and take a bit of time over the lyrics.
What do you think of all the hip-hop acts who’ve sampled you?
I think they get stuff from my records they don’t get anywhere else, which is nice. Often it’s some quirky pseudo-classical bit in the middle of a song – they’ll take that and use it as the basis for an entire backing track. It’s a good idea, and I’m not averse to that. Especially as they have to pay me for it!
INTERVIEW: JOHN LEWIS
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