ELO: Discovery (1979)

ELO, the Electric Light Orchestra.

For me, this was the beginning of the end for ELO.  First, leader Jeff Lynne did away from the three string-players as official members of the group. The band was now a four-piece group. The album still had some string arrangements, but sparingly and not by the three string-players.  Second, the band’s sound was all over the place and lacked the originality of past albums.  Other ELO albums I played in their entirety, this one, I began to skip over songs.  Discovery is very different from Out of the Blue.  Every song on Out of the Blue sounds fresh and pushes the ELO boundaries a bit.

Discovery is not an awful album.  It peaked at number five in the U.S. and four songs were released as singles.  Jeff Lynne was more focused on what would play on the radio than he was in moving forward with the band’s sound.  Lynne is a talented songwriter, but he was entering a period where is composing skills were off the rails.  To be truthful, look at music in the late 1970s, it was a huge transitional period.  Laid-back L.A. rock was going out of style, while disco was strong but about to hit a gigantic revolt. Punk rock and hair bands were becoming fashionable, and the big rock bands were disbanding or no longer hot.  ELO was not really part of this, successfully finding a niche in the 1970s with high selling albums and radio-friendly singles.  The early 1980s would be complicated and highly competitive.

When Discovery hit the record store racks, I snagged a copy and eagerly put it on the turntable.  My initial thought: this album is disappointing.  Have you ever experienced a newly waxed floor, it is so slick you can barely stand up?  That was my reaction to the album. It was as if algorithms designed the songs and machines played and sang the notes. The playing sounded very artificial.  I had no idea what awaited me in the 1980s.

To be fair, there were a few songs that I enjoyed listening to from the album.  Jeff Lynne had too much musical ability to leave me high and dry.  He did at least bring the string-players back for the musical videos.

Side one

“Shine a Little Love” 4:43  This sounded like ELO on amphetamines.  It contains every ELO gadget in the book.  It was made for radio, or like I said, manufactured for radio, reaching number eight in the U.S.  About the third time I heard it I was tired of it.  It has the syrupy disco strings.

unnamed (2)“Confusion” 3:42 This song’s sound would become a favorite of Lynne’s in the future. You can hear it on the albums he produced for other artists including Tom Petty and George Harrison.  It has a folky, 12-string guitar and a Del Shannon-Roy Orbison retro rock feel.  This is not a bad song, but one I’ve heard a million times since.

“Need Her Love” 5:11 Lynne can be very schmaltzy and drown any real poignancy.  It is an alternate version of “Confusion.”  Not a bad song, just overblown on the arrangement and it goes on too long.

“The Diary of Horace Wimp” 4:17  This might be the best song on the album, it certainly has the best arrangement and vocal performance.  I love the song, but hate the lyrics.  Not released as a single in the U.S. but it was in Europe.

Side two

“Last Train to London” 4:32  The best song music/lyrics on the album.  This song rocks with the disco beat.  The bass line is incredible.  Unfortunately, it barely broke the top 40, which shows the push against disco.

“Midnight Blue” 4:19 Another song that has a vintage feel to it but dressed up in late 1970s production.  Not a bad song, just a style too often used.

“On the Run” 3:55  Very layered arrangement of sounds and synthesized sound.  A pleasant song.  Give it to Lynne for his clever arrangement.  This is the first time in years I’ve listened to this song.

“Wishing” 4:13  I like this song, not quite as overwrought as some of his ballads.  Very Beatlesque.  The string arrangement is nice, better than some of the others on the album.

“Don’t Bring Me Down” 4:02  A hit all over the world, rising to number four in the U.S.  This is the song most heavily played from the album and one of their all-time hits.  It’s a heavy, bashing song, very likable, but easy to get sick of it.  Interesting that this song would end the album, a rocker, when the very first song was a very slick disco-fied track.  Mr. Lynne was covering all the bases.

So, where does this album rate in the ELO universe?  About in the middle. It is truly not a classic, but it has some a couple of songs for the greatest hits album.  There is not a terrible song on the album, just some formula songs that lack for originality.  The loss of the string-players and the addition of more synthesizers was not a good trade.  Still, it is worth a listen, and not just the great songs.

 


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