The liner notes on Idle Race’s second album, ‘Idle Race’, released in 1969, are giddy with adjectives and end with a short biography of each of the fledgling Birmingham group’s four members. One of that number, Jeff Lynne, is described by the author, Ray Coleman, as ‘the chief songwriter’. ‘He rides a bicycle’, the piece continues, ‘likes The Beatles and, in a rather disorganised way, manages to write prolifically. ‘I have hundreds of songs in my head. I have bits of so many songs going at one time, I can get mixed up’’. Lynne’s profile photograph on the back of ‘Idle Race’ captures him, aged twenty, clean-shaven and with a shock of big hair, staring intently ahead while both his hands are fixed across the knobs and tits on a studio mixing console.
Forty-six years on and, while the technology has become more sophisticated, very little else has changed and Jeff Lynne cuts a familiar figure on the spread inside ‘Alone In The Universe’, his first album of original material in almost fifteen years. Captured behind a mounted vocal mic at the studio in his home in Los Angeles, he’s surrounded by a battery of instruments, framed discs and, on the shelving to one side of the room, mementoes that, deliberately or otherwise, reference particular mile-stones from a scarcely plausible career. A Beatles special edition box set, a rare nick-nack from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and a collectable piece from The Traveling Wilburys are most prominent among the racks.
I’ve been there with Jeff every step of the way – or I certainly feel like I’ve been there – since the late summer of 1979 when, as an eleven year old boy in Cork, my mother bought me my first single from Pat Egan’s Rainbow Records on Patrick Street. ‘Shine A Little Love’, written and produced by Jeff and played and performed by what was then his seven-piece group, The Electric Light Orchestra, had charted some months previously and now, from the back of one of the bargain bins, a life-long relationship was taking root. ‘Shine A Little Love’ was brash, showy and instant ;- it put the ‘disco’ into ‘Discovery, the album from which it was lifted. It was immense.
Jeff continues to mine a familiar seam and the swirl of strings, layered hand-claps and multi-tracked vocals still feature prominently in his kit ;- it’s as magical a sound now as it was then. ‘Alone In The Universe’ – an album that summons up ghosts and dominant sounds and voices from the past – is his most complete suite of songs since that same ‘Discovery’ album. It nods variously to 1977’s ‘Out Of The Blue’, 1981’s ‘Time’ and 2001’s vastly-under-rated and largely ignored ‘Zoom’, three fine E.L.O. albums from three very distinct phases of the group’s career that, alongside the obvious influence of Roy Orbison’s vocal inflections, pump it’s heart.
Now almost 68 years old, Jeff Lynne is back at the top table and, you’d imagine, can barely believe how it’s all come back home like this. E.L.O. was a beaten docket as far back as 1986 and that year’s ‘Balance Of Power’ album was a real struggle to complete, as much for loyalists and completists as much as it was for the band itself. Critically, their best days were five years behind them while the group’s commercial clout and the familiar spirit of the band’s sound was as shrivelled as their make-up. Where once they were seven, boasting strings, wires and scale, they’d been reduced by 1986 to a core of Lynne, drummer Bev Bevan and keyboard player Richard Tandy. E.L.O. simply ran out of juice.
The most surprising aspect of ‘Alone In The Universe’ is just how unsurprising the whole enterprise actually is. As usual, there’s nothing on this record that regular watchers haven’t seen previously ;- Jeff is too far gone and too long in the tooth now to trial new tricks. But what the record does do is return to what E.L.O. did so successfully for so long ;- simple, unaffected, impactful pop songs wrapped in the usual, platinum-plated Lynne production. Over the course of the last fifteen years, Jeff’s gone full-circle :- once derided as a shameless Beatles plagiarist, maybe there was always far more depth to his work than was previously thought ? Old enough to have completed the circuit, he’s caught up with himself second time around and, in his beard and his aviator shades – for years so terminally un-hip – and propelled by the good offices of a handful of influencers and opinion-formers, it’s like he’s never been away.
To fans of the traditional pop song, ‘Alone In The Universe’ is a magnificent piece of work but, then again, I see merit in even the worst aspects of ‘Secret Messages’, ‘Time’ and ‘Balance Of Power’ – and there are several. I love the basic rhyming schemes, the juvenile metaphors and the subtle intent but, beyond all else, I just love the simplicity and how, with the bending of a bridge or the casual caress of a vocal line, he can re-direct the message with serious impact. ‘Love And Rain’ – which could be straight off of ‘Zoom’ – is a nagging ‘Showdown’ pastiche until, with the stab of an unexpected coda led by Lynne’s daughter, Laura on harmony vocals, it’s lifted out of it’s body and detonates on landing. ‘Dirty To The Bone’, with it’s handclaps and layered harmonies could be off of any E.L.O. record from 1979 to 1986 while the lead track, ‘When I Was A Boy’, takes familiar lyrical themes – music as salvation and the dreams of youth – and, in so doing, echoes ‘Wild West Hero’, one of the stand outs on 1977’s epic ‘Out Of The Blue’ double-album.
Elsewhere, ‘When The Night Comes’ is a companion piece to The Traveling Wilburys’ ‘Not Alone Anymore’, which Lynne wrote and which Roy Orbison majestically delivered while ‘I’m Leaving You’ is cut from the same seam as Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ ;- it isn’t overly difficult to imagine Orbison taking the vocal on either. While ‘Ain’t It A Drag’, an unsophisticated rattle, could easily be Tom Petty in full-pelt on ‘Full Moon Fever’.
In a wide-ranging interview with Terry Staunton, published in December, 2012 in ‘Record Collector’ magazine to coincide with the release of ‘Long Wave’, an album of re-purposed covers and oldies, Jeff alluded to fresh material and mentioned that he already had several new songs completed. ‘I can still sing like I used to. I’m not finished yet’, he told his interviewer. On the more complicated issue of his own songwriting he told Staunton that ‘simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. If you get too busy with the overall sound you can lose sight of the tune. If you can hold a simple melody and you don’t disappear up your own arse with complicated lyrics you’ll end up with a championship winning song’. But then even during E.L.O.’s most elaborate period from 1972-1975, Lynne’s theatric ambition was always under-pinned by an easy command of the basics. For every ‘Poor Boy’, a ‘Can’t Get It Out Of My Head’, for every ‘Dreaming of 4000’, a ‘Showdown’ and so on.
And so, still steadfast and true to his best instincts, ‘Alone In The Universe’ is hardly among the year’s most challenging or fresh-faced records and yet is easily among the year’s best. Home, at last.