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For most concertgoers, a night at the orchestra involves stuffy formalwear, overpriced refreshments, and row after row of graying heads in upholstered seats. In 1970, British rock group Electric Light Orchestra redefined the orchestral experience, stripping the music of ceremony and leaving only its spellbinding complexity behind. Founding members Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne had a clear goal in mind: to “pick up where the Beatles left off.” By combining seemingly incompatible sonic elements — the sophistication of classical and the gritty authenticity of rock — their sound belongs in a genre all its own. After Wood’s departure and a 13-year hiatus, the band rebranded as Jeff Lynne’s ELO. Their latest release, “From Out of Nowhere,” proves that nearly 50 years of music-making have yet to make a dent in their originality.
Despite Lynne’s claims that “From Out of Nowhere’ – that’s exactly where it came from,” the album’s symphonic polish can only be the result of his extensive industry experience. Along with writing, arranging, and producing each of its 10 tracks, Lynne plays almost every instrument himself, including guitars, bass, keyboards, and percussion. His reverence for music manifests in every painstakingly rendered note but never eclipses the emotional component of his work. Although Lynne’s mastery of compositional technique smacks of artifice, the depth and wonder of his songs are anything but artificial.
The introduction to the title track juxtaposes two guitar lines in a steady midtempo cross-rhythm, establishing momentum without devolving into frenzy. The melody fades out as Lynne’s vocals take its place and the arpeggiated accompaniment continues, its syncopation slyly disrupting listeners’ sense of pulse. The first verse’s frequent changes between major and minor keys underscore its lyrical content: “And voices keep calling / But nobody knows where to go,” Lynne observes, sounding just as unsure as the modulating guitars surrounding him. Throughout the verse, skillfully interwoven vocal harmonies generate sporadic swells of intensity, unexpected but never destabilizing. During the chorus, a lyrically echoing interlude about finding freedom and renewal in “a place / That I love,” the same shifting chord progressions convey the more optimistic uncertainty of life’s infinite potential. Even if “You get the feeling that / Everything’s gonna blow,” as Lynne sings in the first verse, the chorus affirms the possibility to “fly away / And start anew.” Each repetition of the lines “Let me go / Let me fly” takes on a slightly more insistent tone, rising to a conclusion somewhere between a plea and a prayer.
Whether or not anyone grants Lynne’s wishes, the next song’s title offers another solution: “Help Yourself.” Its instrumentation puts Lynne’s voice in dialogue with unhurried, wistful keyboard motifs as he reflects on a failed relationship that left him “without a clue.” Instead of recalling his past with disappointment or rancor, he advises his former lover to “never change” and “just keep on bein’ you.”
The album’s penultimate track and second single, “Time of Our Life,” commemorates ELO’s 2017 concert at London’s Wembley Stadium with the ebullient nostalgia of a cherished triumph. Lynne’s lyrics succinctly capture the best part of performing for an audience: “And best of all, they seemed so happy just being there.” Listeners are bound to feel his buoyant energy in the chorus’ jaunty beat no matter their distance from Wembley.
Lynne concludes the album on a sentimental note with “Songbird,” a slow, jazzy love song. As he sings about the long-awaited return of “her sweet voice,” layers of choral harmonies bookend an extended instrumental solo topped off with an airy keyboard glissando. The final verse might as well be describing the track’s soothing lull: “She sings her lovely song to me … Now my troubles are gone.”
ELO’s sound has few contemporary counterparts but raises the question of why classical-inflected rock is so rare. Classical music’s isolated and exclusive image stems, in no small part, from its refusal to break with centuries of custom. Lynne’s songs honor the classical tradition while making a dent in its highbrow pedestal. What might happen if more concertmasters ditched their coattails for crowd-surfing? ELO’s unparalleled success proves that fusing seemingly disparate genres can produce something exquisite and magical. You might even call it electric.
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