Undeniably, the ’70s were a fantastic time to be Jeff Lynne. Having scored a string of well-placed chart hits (most Billboard top 40 hits in history) with the fabled “mustache gang”, aka the Electric Light Orchestra — Lynne was practically galloping on unicorn’s. Enter the ’80s and ELO’s perception by some as over-wrought and over-produced barons of disco-cheese (thanks for nothing, Xanadu) galvanized the band’s greatest critics. Of course, that didn’t stop them from churning out the hindsight-hipster-classic, 1981’s Time, or the atypically tuneful (if not relatively underwhelming by ELO standards) swan song, 1986s Balance of Power (Lynne allegedly conceded to a half-hearted ’80s output, though I don’t totally buy that).
As it turned out, piloting ELO’s mother ship into the ground wouldn’t exactly stall Jeff Lynne’s musical career — not even for a second. From 1987-1989, Lynne would go on to produce big-time albums for the likes of George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison — not to mention his secret-starring role on the Traveling Wilbury records. I mean, behind the scenes, here was a man almost literally catching fire, hair-mane and all — he was just that hot. And sure, while it was true that he put his pants on much like the rest of us, one leg at a time — once they were on, he made gold records.
By that measure, one might have anticipated a fairly strong response to 1990’s Armchair Theatre, Lynne’s first outing as a solo artist. Yet strangely, almost no one took the bearded-bait. Chalk it up to his relative lack of star-power, an over-saturation of “Lynne” in the market, or maybe it was the world’s collective unconscious mucking things up — millions of people secretly praying for their decade of Grunge and Mariah Carey.
Whatever the reason, Armchair Theatre seemed destined for out of print obscurity. Except it wasn’t… Set for re-release (Frontiers) in April of 2013, the long-lost disc is back and sounding better than ever. Surprised? Of course not, this is Jeff Lynne we’re talking about! Not some average human with arguably too much facial hair. While this release had no business approaching the “penultimate” Jeff Lynne music collection, that it does is a true testament to his craft and effortless longevity.
Aiming in the general direction of that which inspired him as a child, the core of Armchair comfortably rests in classic rock ‘n’ roll — though not without dabbling into the effervescent pop sounds of his former band. Tracks like “Every Little Thing” and “Lift Me Up” embody the essence of ELO — just stripped of the excess fat. These are the designs of a sonically less ambitious Lynne, opting not for indulgence, but for the (now signature) “dry” and “punchy” natural-room-sounds of his later works.
Yes, he’s altered his aesthetic from rock to symphonic, symphonic to synthetic, and even spent years perfecting that reverb-less vocal vs. boxy snare drum effect (some people love to complain about this). By any standard, his productions are always vital — always relevant to the present moment.
Preeminence of the two aforementioned tracks aside, the insisting “What Would it Take?” and folky sing-a-long bonus cut, “Borderline” only further affirm Lynne’s insistence of Armchair Theatre as his latest bastion of joy. Elsewhere, the wistful, “Don’t Say Goodbye” hits right in the sweet spot, with Lynne channeling his inner-Orbison for the operatic refrain. Likewise, on the beautiful “Blown Away”, we stumble across his airtight ballad-game. Co-written by Tom Petty and featuring Ringo Starr on drums — this song really had no chance of being bad. Quite the contrary. The soaring chorus and nuance of Starr’s drumming help to elevate this track over the bulk of songs here.
Bookending the LP is “Save Me Now, a song at once heckled for it’s trite lyricism, “One day the Earth woke up / and said boy I feel half dead / somebody’s churning up the poison / and it’s getting in my head” — and praised (by me) for it’s trancelike melody. Either way, he’s basically right here… about the Earth and all. Ugh, just enjoy the song!
Though ignored in its day, Armchair Theatre (the deluxe version sounding better than ever) is a must-hear for fans of the classic-pop sound, or for say, your average human. Incredibly, despite a career that began in the ’60s, Lynne swaggered his way into the ’90s (and is still swagging in the 2010s) and was able to release an album that, although not appreciated in its day, will ultimately ride off into that figurative golden sunset (on a unicorn) with the rest of his mind-spinning catalogue.