Expectations. Whose responsibility are expectations? The creator, or the consumer?
I guess it’s on me, the consumer. But I ask because I just received the new ELO album late last week. It magically arrived while we were off on vacation (thank you Amazon!). And expectations almost messed everything up.
Now, ELO is a favorite. I’ve loved the Electric Light Orchestra for as long as I can remember, and news of a new album set my anticipation to a ten. Jeff Lynne was finally setting aside his producing duties for other folks (like The Beatles, Bryan Adams, Tom Petty, etc) and taking up his own music again. And it wasn’t going to be an album of old covers (I’m looking at you, Long Wave). It was going to new, shiny, ELO music. Full of strings, and synths, and guitar, and choral tracks, sweeping and thrumming and full of pop-y goodness.
That’s what I expected. There’s that word ‘expectations’.
As a matter of disclosure, my favorite ELO albums are Zoom, Time, and Out of the Blue. Sure, I love Eldorado. And A New World Record is special. There’s great stuff on every ELO album. But those three, Zoom, Time, and Out of the Blue are my three. They’re also some of the most over-produced, bouncy, collections of pop in the ELO catalog.
I bought Jeff Lynne’s solo album The Long Wave when it came out a few years ago. It was well crafted, but it didn’t stick with me. It was Jeff Lynne revisiting the old standards he grew up with. It seemed to be constructed for an audience of one – Jeff Lynne. Kids wouldn’t want it, the songs were of the vintage that my Mom would enjoy. Well, not really, because she doesn’t believe anyone sings anymore, they just yell into microphones. Not like in the good old days. The Long Wave just wasn’t what I was after, and as well put-together as it was I have to admit I’d been hoping for another Armchair Theater. The Long Wave wasn’t it.
And I bought Zoom when it came out in 2001. I love Zoom. It is an extremely under-rated ELO album. Zoom is a return to form, a fun, energetic disc that I wish had followed Time (instead of the studio-trimmed Secret Messages and then Balance of Power). If Zoom had come out when there had still been an audience for ELO it might have soared. But in the new millennium nobody wanted a classic ELO sound, and Zoom did a spectacular face plant. It must have hurt to put all that effort into something that just went nowhere. As a result fourteen years have passed without another new album.
Then suddenly late last year Jeff Lynne starting popping up again. The Hyde Park concert, then playing for Paul & Ringo, and then delivering a fantastic production of Evil Woman & Mr. Blue Sky at the Grammys this year. Sounding just like the ELO of old.
Jeff gave interviews were he talked about how touched he’d been by the response to those shows, and that he was working on a new ELO album. Woohoo! ELO would be back. [see: expectations]
And now the new album is out. Alone in the Universe. It’s not the old band, and it’s not a new band. Rather, it’s Jeff Lynne once again playing all the parts himself. One Jeff dubbed over another Jeff, over another, and another. Still, I expected a swoopy, joyful, ELO album. That’s what Jeff Lynne writes, that’s what ELO does. Right? [see: more expectations]
Alone in the Universe isn’t that. It’s much more akin to Jeff’s solo effort Armchair Theater. But it isn’t quite that either, it’s not as happy, and there’s more ELO in there, just a bit. It’s not a Traveling Wilbury’s album either, although it is twangy every now and again and feels as though Roy, Tom, George, and Bob could be playing along. And it’s not as stubbornly reverential to the standards as The Long Wave, although it has some crooning. It’s a mix of all three styles.
The first time I listened to it I made a cardinal mistake. I was in a hurry to shove it into my ears, I couldn’t hold out any longer. But we had errands to run, so my only option was to give it a first listen via the stock audio in our Toyota Prius. Ouch. Everyone was a loser I’m afraid, I’m sorry ELO. You deserved better.
My wife and I listened as we drove along, and the album just sank. It was flat. The songs were all the same tempo, the vocals were wistful and melancholy. Everything was muddy, the drums barely registering. Song after song sounded like thin retreads of old standards, Wilbury’s outtakes, or the slow, slow ELO songs (the ones you wait thru to get to the bouncy ones). Sigh. I hated it. I hated the new ELO album.
Once we were home I popped it onto our audio system. Better. Still slow and a bit too melancholy, but at least it wasn’t as muddy. There were hints of the old ELO popping through. But only hints, none of the songs grabbed things by the synthesizer and ran away with it. I then read some of the reviews. Mostly glowing, but a few mixed in that expressed the same worries I was experiencing. I went to bed feeling a little better, but still disappointed. Fifteen years of waiting, and I’d rather listen to Zoom!
So, expectations. The next day I listened to the album again. And again. It grew on me. The songs really are expertly crafted. They do soar, they are fun, they’re just smaller, shorter rides. I began to think “Well, it’s not my favorite ELO album, but I could listen to this”. It’s not that bad, in fact, parts of it remind me of old ELO stuff. But I probably wouldn’t choose it.
Then my perspective was changed by an experiment. I’d been wondering about expectations. Was that the problem? Had my expectations been too high? I decided to try something. I threw Alone in the Universe into a blender, mixing the songs in random order with two other albums – Zoom and Eldorado. I let that playlist run in the background as I worked around the house and guess what – the new songs ‘fit’. They didn’t feel out of place at all. It sounded like ELO.
I tried the experiment again, this time shuffling the new album with Out of the Blue and Time. Hmmm. That was a bit worse. The new songs were very well produced, but they didn’t have the bombastic quality of those old albums. Ok, so Alone in the Universe isn’t a ‘Time’. I already knew that.
The more I tried this experiment with various albums from the ELO catalog the more they just blended in. They fit fine. My expectations, based on memories of the old songs, were the problem.
I still miss the joyful, overblown feel of some of those late ’70’s-early ’80’s discs. But you know what? Now that I’ve set aside my expectations I like the new album. It’s playing in the background right now as I write this. It’s a bit slower and lighter, it’s definitely familiar, and it does feel like a ‘smaller’ ELO. Still, I like it. If you’re a fan of ELO, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and the like you should definitely pick this up.
Still, I want my bombastic fun. Perhaps ‘Out of the Blue 2’ next Jeff?