Reviewing an ELO classic, 35 years on
By Toby W. McWilliams
In July 1981, the Electric Light Orchestra released the retro-futurist rock ‘n’ roll synth-pop opera Time. Although it never surpassed other LPs like Out of the Blue or A New World Record in overall sales, it is still considered by many ELO fans, including myself, to be the band’s very best album. Three particularly interesting aspects of Time are its conceptual nature, its inventive sound, and its themes – which include technology and the future. All music is credited to singer-songwriter and band leader Jeff Lynne.
In the same vein as ELO’s breakthrough album Eldorado (released seven years prior), Time is a concept album, and it tells a story. When many rock listeners hear the phrase concept album, those two words alone can be enough to elicit yawns and eye-rolling. ELO’s ninth album, however, is not self-indulgent or condescending to the listener, but energetic, consistent and fun. The album is made up of eleven three or four-minute synth-pop tracks, between the short bookends Prologue and Epilogue. It loosely follows the story of a man living in 1981 who is transported into the far-off future of 2095. The unnamed man has to adapt to this new world where everything has been replaced by computers and animatronics, and deal with losing his lost love. Admittedly, the plot is quite thin in parts, (lyrics have never really been Jeff Lynne’s strong suit; in the fourth track he rhymes “1980s” with “uncomplicated”) but this does not stop Time from being a pleasurable listen. Themes of love are present throughout and in keeping with Lynne’s usual songwriting style, but are given more depth and purpose by the narrative that runs through all of the songs. The album as a whole is given direction by being one story, and the whole LP falls together into one coherent musical experience. In sum, Time is a highly enjoyable, light-hearted, romantic romp through a gadget-filled futuristic world.
Another aspect of the album that makes it so great is its sound. Time is full of new and interesting timbres which mirror changes in musical trends, the band’s new line up, as well as the sci-fi themes of the album. With this album, the band’s Orchestra is abandoned, while the Electric component is heavily emphasised. Time was conceived at an important juncture in musical history, when disco and punk had run their respective courses and synthesisers were taking over the popular music scene. ELO were not hesitant to climb aboard the synth-pop bandwagon with other early ‘80s acts, and synthesizers (which were used very sparingly by ELO prior to the ’80s) are employed in nearly every track. Time was the first full-length album since Lynne dropped the three-piece string section that had accompanied the band since its inception in the early 1970s. For a band which spent the better part of a decade recording symphonic influenced rock ’n’ roll, losing the strings altogether could well have been a disastrous move, but it pays off spectacularly. Rather than coming off looking like irrelevant “has beens”, Lynne once again demonstrates his musical versatility and innovation. Time brings together Jeff Lynne’s Beatles-esque melodies and classic slick production with the trendy electronic synth-sounds of the new decade, and creates a tasteful, synergistic musical palette. What’s more, the electronic timbres lend themselves quite nicely to the futuristic world in which the album is set. Just as everything in the world of Time has been replaced by technology and robotics, likewise the instruments of the band have been replaced with electronics, helping to transport the listener into 2095. These choices make for a fresh and immersive sound, and this sonic palette is one of the factors that make Time such a brilliant album.
The third aspect that makes Time stand out from ELO’s other albums is its themes and imagery. Time is an example of retro-futurism, meaning something composed in the past, representing a vision of the future. In Time, Jeff Lynne depicts a future world in which the meaning of love has been distorted by technology and the world as we know it is gone. Planet Earth in 2095 is a place where all nature has been destroyed and replaced with “Ivory towers and […] plastic flowers”. In the song Yours Truly, 2095, we learn about the protagonist’s robotic wife, who is “the latest in technology” but can never truly love him. And although he drives “the very latest hover car”, and despite “all [the] great inventions” the late 21st century has to offer, Time’s protagonist is still not happy with his circumstances, and wishes to find a way to go back to his previous life in 1981. The early ’80s was a time when home computers like the IBM 5150 and the Commodore 64 were becoming more common, and people were speculating as to the implications of a future where computer technology is everywhere in human life. It is unsurprising that the music from this time should reflect those ideas. Perhaps Jeff Lynne’s purpose in the album was to express legitimate concern about the effects of technology playing a larger and larger part in society, although it is perhaps more likely that he was simply playing to the public’s love of futuristic Sci Fi, like Star Wars, and E.T. All in all, the themes and imagery in Time are highly effective and enjoyable (if at times dated), and set this particular album apart from anything else ELO has ever produced.
To conclude, Time is a fascinating and unique album. Its concept and storyline, its sound that draws from many sources but manages to be on trend, as well as its futuristic imagery and themes elevate it to its position as ELO’s very best album. I would certainly recommend this album to anyone who likes either ‘80s pop or ‘70s rock. Time is a classic Electric Light Orchestra album that has truly stood the test of time.
14 year old Western Springs College student Toby West McWilliams is a collector of vinyl records and avid rock fan. He inherited his record player as well as his musical ear from his father, musician Edmund Cake. Toby lives in Grey Lynn, Auckland with his family and his cat.