The Electric Light Orchestra's “Out Of The Blue” is the kind of record that many ELO fans never name as their favourite; like The Beatles' “Sgt. Pepper”, it's the kind of legendary album that is just so obviously good, people will automatically choose another title to champion as their personal pick. It almost goes without saying that it's one of the best pieces of work Jeff Lynne has written, performed and produced, but I'm not going to just assume people know that and, for the record, would like to happily state that I believe “Out Of The Blue” to be a work of genius. You only have to scan the titles of the songs to recognise more than a handful of massively popular hits (“Turn To Stone”, “Sweet Talkin' Woman”, “Mr. Blue Sky”, “Wild West Hero”), but, as this is a double album, you'd probably expect the vast majority of the album to be excellent if anyone declared it a work of genius, right? Well, “Out Of The Blue” meets all of these expectations in so many ways and, although there are a handful of tracks which perhaps fall short of greatness, the overall character of this work is one of overwhelming, remarkable prolific creativity. Indeed, although I believe “A New World Record” (1976) to be Jeff's most flawless work, “Out Of The Blue” is his magnum opus, his greatest achievement. He made excellent albums before and after this one, but his one and only double album has a worthy place in history as his most commercially and critically successful.
At the start of the album are two of the most radio-friendly hits, the shimmering, catchy “Turn To Stone” and the gloriously overblown “Sweet Talkin' Woman”, with the grandiose piano ballad “It's Over” (also a single, but not a very successful one) sandwiched in between. The dramatic Richard Tandy piano on it is breathtakingly beautiful and, such is the emotional nature of the track, the fact it shares its title with a Roy Orbison song doesn't appear at all coincidental. With its driving tempo and energy-packed string section, “Across The Border” is an terrific rocker whereas the brilliant “Night In The City” has a trapped, intense feel to it, frenetic, edgy strings giving the track a wonderfully paranoid quality; both tracks could easily have been singles. The dreamy, lush “Starlight” evokes memories of those big American orchestral numbers from the thirties and forties (with a discernible ELO character, naturally) and “Jungle” is utterly charming, with an excellent percussion section and a ridiculously catchy hook. It's wonderfully silly, of course, but so much detail has been packed into four minutes, it's almost impossible to not love it.
Jeff's love of dramatic, big, emotional music is evident on “Believe Me Now”, a reverb-drenched mostly instrumental track which serves as in introduction to “Steppin' Out”, one of the greatest moments on “Out Of The Blue”, being one of Lynne's heart-wrenching tear-jerkers, a remarkably beautiful composition full of both sadness and hope, masterfully augmented by Louis Clark's magnificent string arrangements. Arguably, the most artistically ambitious moment of the album comes on what was side three of the original vinyl double album, the “Concerto For A Rainy Day”, four songs that run together consecutively, starting with the adrenaline fuelled “Standin' In The Rain” and culminating in perhaps ELO's most loved song, “Mr. Blue Sky”. Inspired by Jeff writing music in a Swiss chalet and being interrupted by torrential rain beating on the door, it's actually difficult to hear this sequence of four songs without becoming rather awestruck at the sheer genius and accomplishment of Lynne's compositional ability. “Big Wheels”, for example, the second song in this concerto, is one of the most magnificent pieces of music on the album, arguably of of Jeff Lynne's greatest songs, and yet a casual listener owning only a greatest hits would never have heard it. The exuberant “Summer and Lightning” is no weak link either, with the breezy, summery melody drifting over blissful harmonies and sublime strings.
What can be said about “Mr. Blue Sky” to do it justice? This irrepressible five minutes of wistful, sentimental, optimistic loveliness bounces along and makes the listener feel, for just a short while, that everything is right with the world. The chorus, the orchestra, the superb performance by Bev Bevan, adding little flourishes on ride cymbal... are there many moments in popular music more perfect than this one? It would be perfectly understandable if any track following “Mr. Blue Sky” on an album felt flat by comparison, but it is to Lynne's credit that the airy, romantic “Sweet Is The Night” is anything but and the close-knit backing vocals as well as Kelly Groucutt's crystal-clear lines all result in a swooning, caressing jewel of a song. “The Whale” is a pleasant, listenable, expansive instrumental, but it and “Birmingham Blues”, a likeable song about being on the road and missing home, both suffer from being on an album with so many better compositions and, so, give the double album the impression of tiring a little towards the end. Thankfully, the last track, the magical “Wild West Hero”, conjuring up childhood memories of watching westerns and dreaming of being the courageous, capable lead in such fantastical tales, finishes the album with a last piece of Jeff Lynne genius, featuring a superb vocal performance from the man himself and a dizzying honky-tonk piano solo from Tandy.
Although “Out Of The Blue”, complete with its iconic artwork, isn't exactly perfect (some may disagree), it hit creative heights that Lynne had yet to reach before and, arguably, has never managed to repeat since. If you were asked to be completely objective and ruthless, you could trim down the album a bit and remove the slightly novelty aspects (“Jungle” and “Birmingham Blues”) and perhaps even decide that the track listing would have an altogether greater impact without “Starlight” and “The Whale”. However, it wouldn't surprise me if the majority of ELO fans would be horrified at such a suggestion; the supposedly lesser songs on “Out Of The Blue” are every bit as much a part of the charm of the album as the big pop songs and ballads. They provide character, texture and variety and even a little bit of comic relief to a piece of work dominated by grandiose strings and big, beautiful ballads. However, the price paid for this texture is that other albums in the Electric Light Orchestra catalogue have the appearance of being trimmer, punchier and perhaps even easier to listen to as a whole. That is the risk of double albums, of course. Even The Beatles' “White Album” provokes discussion by fans as to whether it would have been better off as a single disc. Needless to say, I believe “Out Of The Blue” to be perfectly imperfect, very much like the Fab Four's sprawling double album, but when you consider that the songs on The Electric Light Orchestra's 1977 album were written by just one person, the bearded bard of Birmingham, it makes Jeff's accomplishment here that much more impressive.
on 31 October 2011
I bought the 30th anniversary edition, and it is absolutely brilliant, just like it was in 1977, the sound of pure unadulterated optimism! Most of the brilliance was down to Jeff Lynne, however ELO's string arranger Louis Clark deserves a mention, as does the string section itself: they would never be better.
The songs (including 4 top ten hit singles) are of course excellent, yes they are over-produced, but that is part of their appeal: nobody does over-production quite like ELO: just check out Across The Border, possibly the most layered recording of all time!
The chord structures are often beautiful in a Walt Disney-ish way. lyrics-wise some of the songs are superficial, but then you wouldn't say that about Big Wheels, one of their most moving songs and for me the highlight, along with Mr Blue Sky.
ELO were critically reviled, however no music critic could ever come up with a masterpiece like this.
on 21 July 2007
Thirty years ago, as a kid with an unhealthy Beach Boys obsession, I heard 'Mr Blue Sky' on the radio and decided 'modern music' wasn't quite so bad after all. I saved up my hard earned pocket money (double albums weren't cheap, you know) and bought 'Out of the Blue'. I played nothing else for a full year, bought their entire back catalogue (even the Roy Wood stuff) and counted the days until 'Discovery' was released. I don't think I've ever been so excited about anything either before or since. Then it was released. And it was rubbish. Then came 'Xanadu'. Even worse! I so wanted them to be good again but my mates had been right all along. 'ELO' as they were now referred to, were a joke. I had been completely duped and made to look a fool by my OMD-loving pals. I put my 'ELO' albums away and vowed never to listen to them again. And I didn't for the best part of 30 years. Never even thought of it. Until a few months ago when I was watching some corny movie and 'Blue Sky' came on and it made me feel all nostalgic. I really wanted to listen to 'Out of the Blue' again, but i couldn't because I'd only bought it on cassette and I'd played it so much I'd worn it out. Then I saw that this had been released so, under cover of darkness, I purchased it, quickly transferred it to my ipod so I could pretend I was listening to 'Arctic Monkeys' and prepared myself to feel slightly amused that this album could ever have been so important to me. But I wasn't amused. I was amazed. This is a truly brilliant album and I can't stop playing it.
Jeff Lynne may be known to many as the man who made Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and even 'The Beatles' all sound exactly the same but around about this time he was a god-like genius producing some of the finest music of the decade. On this album he succeeded in creating an epic sound, but one that's never bloated or self-indulgent. He throws everything in here, strings, choir, hugely complex vocal and musical arrangements, but his pop sensibility ensures that each track is tightly constructed. There's no filler or waste here.
Highlights? Well there are just so many great songs.'Turn to Stone' , 'Wild West Hero' and the brilliantly bonkers 'Blue Sky'. Sure one or two tracks are a little weaker than the rest but in the seventies you didn't have the ability to skip from one track to another quite so easily and this album demands to be listened to from beginning to end. It's a real musical experience and one that hasn't aged a bit. Hats off to Louis Clark, an unsung hero of the classic 'Electric Light Orchestra' sound. His highly distinctive string and choral arrangements are all over this record and are just as critical to it's success as Lynne's power pop songwriting and production skills. There is a wondrous moment, just before the second verse strikes up on 'Big Wheels', where the strings sweep down from the highest notes on the violin to the lowest note on the cello. Pure musical drama.
The extra tracks here are OK. For 'ELO' completists really. But everyone, regardless of their musical tastes and prejudices, should have a listen to this album and consider whether music with such melody and ambition is still being made these days. I think not.
If you 'discover' this wonderful and sadly under-rated band through this album and decide you'd like to hear more of them then please work backwards and not forwards from here. I'd hate you to be as disappointed as I was all those years ago. Still, I can probably forgive Jeff Lynne for that, because at least he gave me this; 'Out of the Blue', one of the finest albums ever recorded.