Launching simultaneous projects this month, studio wiz and ELO frontman Jeff Lynne is waxing recollective. And at 64, as the mind, hand and voice behind ELO’s mega-selling albums A New World Record and Out of the Blue, as well as a mountain of producing credits with the who’s who of music, there’s little reason stopping him. Lynne is a statesman, a standard barer in pop music—the bearded glam alchemist who forged a rock ‘n’ roll alloy of Spector, Beatles and fairy dust. With Long Wave he recalls his young days by the crystal set, covering the songs that first seduced him, and in Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, he tries his hand at giving classic ELO output a cutting-edge facelift—at the risk of grumbling purists. Between either effort, the results are bright, pleasant and fastidiously rendered.
Take for instance Lynne’s subtle readjustment of “Mr. Blue Sky” on its namesake release. Tighter, cleaner and more pronounced, but undeniably exacting in its similarity, the song is to its original a diamond-cut doppelgänger—the cleaner, “new and improved” version. Gone are the incidentals and bedraggled foot clomps of its analog counterpart, replaced now with a leaner, meaner frame. I’m reminded of when in a 1980s breakthrough in film editing, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street were first “colorized,” to our stumped reaction as TV viewers. “Why?” we’d ask ourselves—”I liked it fine the other way.” In fairness, Lynne’s revamps are by no means affrontive or distasteful—they’re grade-A work by a veteran of his craft—but purely from a gut level, their millimeter precision and Pro Tools gloss have a way of shouting the answer to a question no one asked. Look, I’ll spit it out: Jimmy Stewart looked better in black-and-white.
Still, the ELO mastermind has more than earned his right to “better” what we’ve long felt sacrosanct. It’s his material, after all, and in truth, hearing today’s “Evil Woman” versus its elder iteration is an exercise in examining two sides of the same coin. Like Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 2012 rather than 1962, it’s the same but different. One gets the feeling Lynne is engaging the Lynne of half his age, availing all the artful tricks and trade mysteria only to be gleaned with the passage of time—like a retired Baryshnikov telling his younger self, “Point your toes more!”
Mixed feelings are traded for unmottled regard with Long Wave, however. Lynne does a bang-up job in reviving, rearranging and essentially ELOifying his favorites from childhood, tackling a cross-section of blues, country and pre-war standards. With the star-crossed longing of the Everly Brothers hit, “So Sad,” Lynne bellows with a hayseed drawl over shimmering cowboy chords. The production is delicate and restrained, clopping with a simple rhythm and accented with strings only where needed. In light of a man behind so many deep, multi-instrumental rock operas, an unlikely word association would be “minimalistic,” but here and with many other tracks throughout Long Wave, Lynne proves he’s not averse to paring down.
Weaker cuts come in the form of a buffed-edges version of Chuck Berry’s “Let it Rock” and Etta James’ “At Last,” which by the way it’s trending seems on course to topple “Yesterday” and “The Girl from Ipanema” for “Most Bludgeoningly Covered Song in History.” The ELO singer schmears a little Brylcreem on his vibratto in the beautifully dramatic “Running Scared,” doing an honest job of something that only with age could a singer be so courageous to attempt: Roy Orbison’s unequaled high-note finish. In the end, pinnacle tracks like a sudsy, glammed-up “Somewhere Across the Sea,” as well as the gorgeously rendered melancholy of “Smile,” the album’s most magnetic and masterful moment, do well in crystallizing Long Wave as the fun and worthy excursion of a seasoned industry icon.