When Jeff Lynne played Hyde Park last year, and was greeted by a 50,000-strong (sold out) crowd of ELO lovers, he decided it might be a good idea to make another record. You can’t blame him; after 30 years off the live circuit, such a response must have been overwhelming. Seemingly it was also something of a wake-up call – a reboot for the band once called “the sons of The Beatles” by John Lennon. Alone In The Universe is, indeed, the sound of a rebooted ELO.
Those of us born after 1986 (the year of the last ELO record, pre-2001’s Zoom) will likely recall, say, Mr Blue Sky in its indie film guise – remember Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind? – more so than as a hit by one of the biggest bands in the world. Which they were at one point, let’s not forget. Either way that sunny pop disposition and good-natured pomp carries through here to fresh, reassuring effect. It’s no egotistical contrivance that it’s ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’ – he does pretty much everything on this record, from playing to producing – but a solitary-sounding affair this is not. Poignantly reflective, yes, but not closed-off or morose.
Still at first listen When I Was A Boy could seem a rather downbeat opener. But it’s immediately familiar and warming, and paves the way for a multi-textured collection of songs. Love And Rain follows up with touches of soul, sophisticated beats and the coolest hint of Santana in the guitar (which resurfaces in the uptempo One Step At A Time – a song that manages to be chirpy and terribly suave at the same time). Then Ain’t It A Drag zings into your ears, all smitten smiles with an edge of wry cynicism (“Just when you think it’s cool, the shit hits the fan” Lynne laments, with a twinkle in his eye). For 2 minutes and 35 seconds you’ll question whether anything is really better than first-class pop.
Above all else it’s the ELO mastery of ‘simple-but-not-simple’ songs that’s truly loveable. Their knack for pop tunes that seem to be pure sunshine and rainbows, before twisting into something sharper – more original. Interestingly, this is a trait epitomised in bonus track Blue; sweet and understatedly elegant.
Welcome back, Jeff – you’ve still got it.