Jeff Lynne’s ELO – From Out of Nowhere

ELO - FOON copy

The original version of the Electric Light Orchestra released their final album Balance of Power in 1986; it was a contractual obligation album, Jeff Lynne was desperate to get out of his contract with Epic Records and concentrate on producing. In the late 80s, a group of former band members, led by drummer Bev Bevan, purchased the rights to the name and the back catalogue and became ELO Part II, with limited success. In between producing the likes of George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson, Jeff Lynne found time not only to be a Traveling Wilbury, but also to create a 1990 solo album Armchair Theatre. It was when working on his second solo album 11 years later that the idea was mooted that it would be a lot more successful if he were to release it as ELO.

So Jeff Lynne bought back the name from ELO Part II and the album was released as Electric Light Orchestra – Zoom, much to the chagrin of Jeff’s old friends George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who’d recorded guest shots on what they thought was a solo album and weren’t entirely happy with being drafted into ELO! Nevertheless, Zoom was a successful return for the band and marked the beginning of the 21st century iteration of Jeff Lynne’s ELO. Well, sort of… the line-up that Jeff put together for Zoom, including former ELO member Richard Tandy and Jeff’s then-girlfriend Rosie Vela, lasted only for this one album; when he returned to the fold after another 14 years with Alone in the Universe, multi-instrumentalist Jeff Lynne would be a one-man-band in the studio, borrowing Take That’s band for touring and the 2017 live album Wembley or Bust.

From Out of Nowhere, the third post-millennium studio album, is aptly titled. I, for one, had no idea that Jeff was even working on a new album until I started seeing adverts for its imminent arrival. The critical reception of Zoom had been mixed, but Alone in the Universe was universally applauded. Zoom still suffered from the pretentious music journalism of the 90s, but enough time had passed by 2015 for Alone in the Universe, and ELO’s back catalogue in general, to be appreciated for what it truly is. So, how would From Out of Nowhere stand up in comparison to its predecessor? Very well it would seem, as the album shot to No.3 in the UK album charts upon its release – not bad for an almost 50 year-old ‘band’. I put ‘band’ in inverted commas because once again Jeff created the studio album more or less on his own… and if that grates, it’s worth considering that he was toying with this as far back as 1980, when Don’t Bring Me Down was reputedly assembled at the mixing desk with tape-loops and samples.

The title track From Out of Nowhere and its successor Help Yourself might lead you to believe that this album is more of the same as we heard on Alone in the Universe. They share the same sound palate as the earlier album, which is not a criticism but a statement of fact. Perhaps they were included first for that precise reason; to reassure the listener with something familiar. But Jeff Lynne was never one to rest on his laurels and the old sense of experimentation starts before too long. With its samba-style backing track, All My Love sounds like it could have been one of the many ‘lost’ tracks from Secret Messages, surely ELO’s most experimental 80s album. It’s cool and relaxing and reminds you that Jeff Lynne’s ELO isn’t just a ‘greatest hits’ outfit. Following this is Down Came the Rain, a very traditional sounding ELO track. I’m not sure what Jeff’s obsession with rain is, but I can think of at least 5 tracks off the top of my head in which it plays a central part. This is a worthy addition to the ‘rain songs’ pantheon.

Losing You is a break-up song and it’s quite unusual in the context of this album because this is a collection that has a generally positive vibe. Jeff Lynne has never been afraid of wearing his heart on his sleeve, albeit in a rather obscured sense, and this one seems to sit alongside Zoom’s Long Time Gone as him venting some deep personal feelings through song. The album instantly shakes itself out of its reverie though with One More Time, a fast-paced rocker in the mode of Rock ‘N’ Roll is King. ELO were always great at this sort of thing; taking a kind of Chuck Berry 1950s sound and injecting it with random interludes of both ancient and modern; I can see this is a track that will have old-school ELO fans punching the air. Sci-Fi Woman is an odd one; it’s a great song, but it has the feeling of listening in to a private conversation; as if Jeff is singing about something that isn’t really any of our business. If the purpose of music is to stir up feelings other than simple ‘rocking out’ then it definitely succeeds in that vein.

Goin’ Out on Me is a song about infidelity, but it’s a less personal and depressing number than Losing You. With its very 50s sounding piano rhythm, it’s another tribute to the classic rock ‘n’ roll that Jeff Lynne grew up with, only this time with a more bluesy Fats Domino feel. This is followed by Time of Our Lives, which starts off feeling like it might be a nostalgia piece in the mode of George Harrison’s When We Was Fab (which Jeff also co-wrote and produced), but if you listen to the lyrics, you quickly realise that he’s not singing about way back in the 70s, he’s singing about a couple of years ago when Jeff Lynne’s ELO did a massive stadium tour culminating in the Wembley Stadium gig that comprised the DVD and album Wembley or Bust. It’s kind of heart-warming to hear an artist who’s now turned 70 waxing lyrical about the recent past and it gives you a real sense that the recent revivals of ELO were not just driven by revenue, but meant something deep and personal to their founder member. Probably my favourite track on the album.

From Out of Nowhere ends with Songbird, a slow number which is kind of like a less depressing take on 1973’s Bluebird is Dead. As with rain, birds also seem to be a running theme throughout Jeff Lynne’s writing, but often with a wistful, melancholic twist; Songbird is different, it’s positive – his songbird has come home and everything is going to be fine. It’s fascinating to look at From out of Nowhere and compare the themes therein to what has gone before. You can almost see the various stages of Jeff Lynne’s career – youthful enthusiasm, critical success, divorce, critical mauling, rediscovery, rebirth – all reflected in his songs at one time or another. I’m glad to report that From Out of Nowhere finds Jeff Lynne happy and well and positive about the future. ELO have been there throughout my life and meant a lot to me at times that were both happy and sad – and this is exactly the album that I want to hear right now. Well done, Jeff.

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