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Lonely nights and skies: ELO’s ‘Alone in the Universe’

| Monday, November 16, 2015

lonely nights webSusan Zhu | The Observer

Fourteen years and one re-branding later, Jeff Lynne’s ELO has released a follow-up to 2001’s “Zoom.” Despite the band’s hiatus, “Alone in the Universe” is instantly recognizable to fans: The opener, “When I Was a Boy,” features the band’s signature blend of strings and keys, and Lynne isn’t shy about showing us he can still hit the highest of notes. The album’s cover is emblazoned with the now retro jukebox-styled flying saucer. The subject matter — failed relationships, longing, nostalgia — is all ELO, too. On “Alone in the Universe,” Jeff Lynne embarks on a melancholy, though at times uneven, odyssey through the familiar nights of his life.

The album is one of doublets. Back-to-back tracks “Ain’t It a Drag” and “All My Life” showcase that music is often about feeling rather than content, with the familiar ELO sound enough to carry weak lyrics like “All my life I searched for you / But you were never there, were you?” and “I took the last pane out just to see the pretty view.” Another pair, “I’m Leaving You” and “One Step at a Time,” depict opposite perspectives on troubled relationships. The former portrays the vindictive reaction to a breakup, as Lynne croons, “But just before you go, there’s something you should know / I’ve found somebody new, and I’m leaving you.” The latter matches this pathetic realism, as Lynne — the victim this time — pleads, “Talk to me, don’t give me the silent treatment.” One imagines these distraught conversations not as Lynne’s firsthand experiences, separated by time’s linear nature, but as a snapshot of some terrarium of humanity, populated by strangers and marked by the simultaneity characteristic of Robert Altman’s film “Short Cuts.”

“Alone in the Universe” works best when it feeds on the listener’s nostalgia for the Electric Light Orchestra, which has existed in some form or another since 1970. “When I Was a Boy” — in its unabashed depiction of simpler times filled with wonder and the directness with which it aims for the listener’s heart, not mind — is a microcosm of the album’s strengths and also one of its best tracks. When Lynne meditates on the loss of innocence, lamenting, “When I was a boy, I had a dream all about the things I’d like to be / Soon as I was in my bed, music played inside my head,” cerebral listeners may scoff. Let them, they’re missing the point.

Just because the songwriting evokes wistfulness akin to Steven Spielberg’s early work doesn’t mean it is entirely beyond reproach. Notably, the Seinfeldian preemptive breakup depicted in “I’m Leaving You,” for all its spite and loathing, poisons the idyllic symbolism posited by “When I Was a Boy” and the title track. Perhaps the album’s structure is a metaphorical journey, one in which Lynne departs from the halcyon days of “When I Was a Boy” for the isolation and decadence of “Dirty to the Bone” and “I’m Leaving You,” only to return to the gentle nostalgia of “Alone in the Universe.”

I keep returning to “When I Was a Boy” because its imagery seems to distill the album’s central theme: communication. “And radio waves kept me company / In those beautiful days when there was no money,” sings Lynne, as we remember that before dissemination of music, radio was used for point-to-point communication. “Ain’t it a Drag,” “One Step at a Time” and “I’m Leaving You” portray the failed communication that can cripple relationships, a bleak reminder that the presence of others is often no safeguard against loneliness. As for those radio waves: Scientists have been combing through the sky for decades, in search of any radio signal indicative of extraterrestrial life. They estimate as many as 60 billion habitable planets exist in our galaxy alone. Perhaps we’re not physically alone in the universe. Maybe we’re just failing to connect.

3/5 stars

Tracks: “When I Was a Boy,” “Dirty to the Bone,” “Alone in the Universe.”

If you like: Supertramp, Eagles

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