If punk’s attack on bloated ‘70s rock took down any act unfairly, it was the Electric Light Orchestra. Their grand orchestral rock epitomised everything overblown, expensive and in-the-way that Lydon’s lot were out to drag off their pedestals like giant statues of despots. But ELO only struck such a deep cultural chord – their double-album masterpiece ‘Out Of The Blue’ shifted over 3 million copies in 1977 and they racked up 50 million in the band’s lifetime – because frontman Jeff Lynne was amongst the era’s finest crafters of almost-The Beatles pop tunes. Of all the dinosaurs suffocated by The Sex Pistols’ meteor dust storm, ELO were the most perfectly evolved.
Their more synth-based ‘80s output struggled to compete in the post-punk pop landscape however, and following 1986’s ‘Balance Of Power’ Lynne fell into making under-rated solo albums, producing the likes of Tom Petty and The Beatles and being the hairy one no-one could name in The Traveling Wilburys. An attempted ELO revival in 2001 went the way of Dapper Laughs, the album ‘Zoom’ scraping into the Top 40 and an arena tour being cancelled after some US shows sold only twelve tickets, meaning that the band would outnumber the audience. So when last year’s return at Hyde Park (organised after persuasion from Chris Evans during a radio interview) was so enthusiastically received, Lynne was visibly overwhelmed. Finally he’d weathered his wilderness years, cast unjustly into the bargain bucket marked ‘guilty pleasures’, and had emerged a bona fide national treasure.
After so many decades as, primarily, a master of the mixing desk’s sleeker end, ‘Alone In The Universe’ – ELO’s 14th album – inevitably doesn’t quite thrum with the creative rush and proud pomp of their ‘70s heyday. There’s an unchallenging formula to it that Lynne-ites will instantly recognise. On lead single ‘When I Was A Boy’ alone, Lynne’s nostalgic paean to his childhood immersion in music “in those beautiful days when there was no money”, there are blatant nods to ‘Imagine’, ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ and his own ‘Steppin’ Out’. ‘Love And Rain’ is a blues-heavy modern take on early ELO single ‘Showdown’; ‘One Step At A Time’ revisits the 1979 disco phase of ‘Shine A Little Love’; the title track is basically an update of 1976 single ‘Telephone Line’. The record is awash with the swoops of strings and crisp drum clips that he’s made ubiquitous on albums by everyone from George Harrison to Roy Orbison, essentially what it sounds like in the head of a rock millionaire. If he put on a Dylan twang every now and then, it could easily be another Wilburys record.
But Lynne’s melodic sparkle, as ever, acts as ELO’s warp drive. He expertly gives tired old genres shots of refreshing stardust. ‘Dirty To The Bone’ – about an, um, evil woman – throws back to the spangly ‘80s synthpop era of ‘Calling America’, ‘Ain’t It A Drag’ gives Cavern-era Beatles a Friends theme brush-up and ‘When The Night Comes’ wraps a Police reggae tune in ornate violins and harmonising choirs of robotic Jeffs. If the album repeatedly reflects over and revisits his glory days like a rewritten greatest hits, it’s only a sign that he’s sharing and indulging our renewed love of this classic canon. Come back on, ELO, and write some more.