If Jeff Lynne makes a record under the name “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” without the ELO, and the record drops more than four decades after the band’s best work, does it still make the wonderful noise of old? Not really. Is new record From Out of Nowhere still ELO? Yes and no.
Keyboardist Richard Tandy only plays on one song. Sure, Lynne was the singer, guitarist, songwriter and all-around boss of ELO for most of its existence. But if you’re going to refuel the spaceship and blast off again, shouldn’t you try to make the trip spectacular, instead of just occasionally familiar?
Lynne taking the ELO ball and running has happened on and off the past couple decades, most recently in 2015 with Alone in the Universe before this new record. From Out of Nowhere feels a bit like when John Fogerty got sued for sounding like John Fogerty in Creedence Clearwater Revival. It sounds like ELO, but not enough for a jury to convict.
But that’s not all that’s working against it. Much of it just doesn’t feel right. It’s a bit more than 30 minutes of music, from a band whose Out of the Blue album was a double-album ’70s juggernaut. Similarities to this outing are in name only.
And, of all the new songs, there’s very little of the grandiosity that helped define ELO. Jeff Lynne is 71 years old and shouldn’t be penalized for not being the ’70s Afro-sporting, white leisure suit version of himself. Expectations must be realistic. Then again, shouldn’t the name indicate at least an attempt to voyage to the spectacular days of classical strings colliding with big riffs, rock drums and irresistible hooks?
The title track is the first real attempt to launch the album, with mixed results. It’s a solid effort that doesn’t try doing too much. For serious fans, it might sound like the three remaining Beatles ganging up to do a couple John Lennon songs. It’s not surprising, considering Lynne’s Beatles connections. The song’s main thrust is fine—it just doesn’t go anywhere, really. There aren’t many musical layers to speak of.
“Help Yourself” similarly lacks an edge, something ELO had, even when it gave disco a try—at least a songwriting edge, with great arrangements and hooks. “All My Love” and “Down Came the Rain” are simply cases of perhaps not having enough ears invested in the songwriting process. Lynne takes a line and calls it a song. Same for “Losing You,” which has a bit more depth, bordering on an old outtake.
But just when you start pining for the Xanadu Soundtrack—no real ELO fan goes full-Xanadu—the album starts to get interesting only halfway through. This seems to run counter to the record industry logic of grabbing a listener’s ears right out of the gate. “One More Time” has a bit of real rock and roll life to it. “Sci-Fi Woman” has a similar drive and a solid verse hook, with more robust production than fans would expect.
Things get fun with “Goin’ Out on Me,” a return to ELO’s old paradoxical love of ’50s pop that tended to appear when least expected. There’s a real arrangement, real guitar and—best of all—a real hook that breathes. Think ELO doing Sha Na Na doing “Tears on My Pillow” on the “Grease” soundtrack.
“Time of Our Life” is an obvious tribute to the old days, with talk of London and telephone lines. It’s a chunky pop tune with an infectious hook and falsetto chorus harmonies. Maybe bands need to write more about what they used to sound like to actually sound like they used to sound.
By the time the Beatles-esque final tune “Songbird” rolls around, Jeff Lynne’s ELO seems to have a counterstrategy at work. Maybe Lynne knew the brand name would keep listeners around until he could send them off with a pleasant ring in their ears.