I must confess that the release of Secret Messages in 1983 was the first new ELO album I declined to purchase since I became enamored of the band in the late 1970s. Its predecessor, the electronic-based Time had, in the context of the post punk-new wave uprising of the early 1980s, sounded terribly out of its depth and horribly uncool. Which remained the prime motivation for ignoring the tenth ELO record (not counting the Xanadu soundtrack, of course). Thus, this revaluation of the new, remastered reissue of Secret Messages bears the hallmarks of a reviewer approaching his subject material for the very first time.
Secret Messages was originally conceived as a double album by ELO conductor Jeff Lynne, until the record label nixed such ambitious plans. It was hoped in ELO fan circles that the reissue would be presented in the fashion Lynne had initially intended. Another wish most hardcore ELO fans hoped would be fulfilled was that the legendary, still unreleased Fab Four tribute, Beatles Forever, would be included. No such luck on either score. Although three bonus tracks (including the unreleased “Endless Lies”) are added, there is alas no sign of Beatles Forever.
However, any disappointment immediately dissipates once you listen to the awesome “Endless Lies”, Lynne’s most blatant (and finest) tribute to the late, great Roy Orbison. Attempting a resonant tenor in the distinctive style of the Big O, Lynne displays a keen insight into Orbison’s musical core assets that served him well when working with Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys and when producing (Orbison’s comeback hit) “You Got It”.
Pulling back from the complicated orchestral arrangements of the 1970s and the techno-savvy special effects of Discovery and Time, Secret Messages marked the start of a distinct “back-to-basics” period for Lynne where classy guitar work would take center stage over the previously ubiquitous synthesizers. Songs like the marvelous “Take Me on and On”, the melancholy “Letter from Spain”, the dreamy “Stranger”, the bluesy “Loser Gone Wild”, the breezy “Bluebird” and the rock ‘n’ roll homage of “Four Little Diamonds” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Is King” presage much of Lynne’s latter-day output with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Del Shannon, Roger McGuinn, Roy Orbison and, of course, the Traveling Wilburys.
Listening to the hyperkinetic title track now, ensconced in the new millennium, it’s easy to forget that its inspiration was the paranoid delusions of certain parties over the concept of “backward masking”, but as you can’t play CDs backwards, it’s pretty much moot. What is unequivocal is that Secret Messages, whatever its trappings, is (as noted by the promo notes) “quintessentially ELO, world-class techno-pop-rock”.