I never knew anyone who wasn’t at least a little bit of a fan of Electric Light Orchestra. My age privileges me in remembering hearing new ELO songs on the radio when I was a kid — it was almost impossible I think for DJs to screw up their set with ELO, as the band’s music straddled so many genres at one time — and although I never owned any of their albums until I was in my 40s (I can’t believe it either), not liking their music would be akin to not liking having any fun. But along with that fun came a musicality and seriousness of songwriting that could get you scratching your head, too. In the words of the old ad, this stuff was good and good for you.
Those were the days…. Launched on record in 1971, by 1976 ELO had five albums under their belt and their sixth, A New World Record, would distill Jeff Lynne’s profound ambition into a back-to-front nine-song pop-prog epic 36 minutes long. While many fans cite ELO’s next record, 1977’s Out of the Blue, as the masterpiece (and in some ways it is), that double album’s aesthetic really gestated on A New World Record: late-era Beatles laid across heavy accents of American R&B and soul, filtered through an army of instruments and tracks. Lynne’s achievement in 1976 was to make this happen succinctly, in service of his writing, which produced the best kinds of love songs — those without the hey babies — full of heartbreak, hope, and hooks. Always the hooks, the insanely catchy melodies. And so the album is packed with genuine chart hits: “Telephone Line,” “Livin’ Thing,” the odd and wonderful “Do Ya,” the dopey but tolerable “Rockaria!” Pop done and undone to the level of the avant-garde, it’s so ridiculous. But it’s at the end of the album’s sides where the sweetness isn’t so much cleansed as qualified, adding a complex finish to the confections preceding. So the album closer “Shangri-La” declares in its operatic final two minutes a return to paradise, either towards or away from the pain of love, and the last cut on side A is a puzzle that resolves in a lyrical, gorgeous sadness.
There is nothing straightforward in “Mission (A World Record),” the central lyrics of which are “watching all the world go by” and — not even printed in the liner notes — “how’s life on Earth?” The rest of it could be a starry sci-fi mini-epic or the rant of a tenant at a mission hospital, or both. But, astral projection or interstellar travel aside, the song concerns itself primarily with a melody, guitar line, and arrangement that read like maps of a future Radiohead. A vibe of desolate beauty, of being left behind, linked with a prophecy or the ramblings of a seer, a paranoid android or a subterranean homesick alien.
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