Vinyl Testaments: Time by ELO

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Electric Light Orchestra: Time
Released July 1981 (US), August 1981 (UK), June 12, 2001 (reissue)
Recorded May 1981, Musicland Studios Munich
Length 43:57
Label Jet Records & Columbia Records, Epic/Legacy (latest reissue)
Producer Jeff Lynne; Engineers – Bill Bottrell, Mack
Chart Positions, Chart Runs
US: #16 Billboard 200, 20 weeks
UK: #1 UK Albums Chart, 32 weeks
AUS: #3 ARIA Albums Chart, 25 weeks
CAN: #7 RPM Albums Chart, 17 weeks
GER: #1 Media Control Charts
Singles: “Hold on Tight”
“Rain Is Falling”
“Here Is The News/Ticket to the Moon”

The first of three contractual-obligation albums, Time is an example of many sometimes-despised genres. It is a concept album, a science-fiction album, arguably prog-rock. From the bubbly Kirby-krackle “Prologue” with Wagnerian chords and faux-poetic, over-Vocodered recitative, through hit singles and a time-travel fantasy to the “Epilogue” with a parting warning, Time is another Jeff Lynne masterpiece despite his now dismissing it.

The Time album is sequenced as an operetta: no breaks between tracks, so after the swirling, atmospheric “Prologue” does its job perfectly, introducing both musical and intellectual themes for the album, “Twilight” kicks in with chugging drums and the familiar stacked chords and descending figures that mark ELO’s poppiest work. This number alone pulls out all the stops with tons of production that abruptly fall away for an isolated piano riff, stops for a final turnaround and recap of the chorus—it’s by-the-book songwriting for Jeff Lynne, but why kill a racehorse you know can win? Even the figure in the strings at the end sound like they were lifted from “Horace Wimp”. In its refrain “Twilight” introduces one of the messages of the album: “It’s either real or it’s a dream, there’s nothing that is in-between”…which is patently untrue, since the point of the song is to set up the possibility that the entire story is a daydream—and besides, the title “Twilight” implies what lies between.

It’s a one-two punch from “Twilight” straight into “Yours Truly, 2095,” a state-of-the-species address from the end of the 21st century. As our culture is often warned, man’s increasing dependence on machines is fated to end badly, as movies from Metropolis to 9 show, but we are irresistibly lazy and keep turning duties over to our creations. In Time our nameless hero has even received a robotic concubine—“She’s also a telephone.” Talk about phone sex.

Chords stomp out the end of “2095” so that the album’s first ballad can drift in. “Ticket to the Moon” is the first statement of our hero’s dissatisfaction with the perfection of the future. He begins melancholy with only a piano; strings swell less than a minute into the song, then the rest of the band joins, and finally choir and keyboards take us through the first chorus and a sound-effects laden bridge looking for a chance to fly away from this disappointing future. The moral appears to be, again, be careful what you wish for.

Fading out with a voiceover like an air-terminal announcer, “Ticket” dissolves to “The Way Life’s Meant to Be,” the hero’s attempt to accept and reconcile to the new status quo since it’s explained he won’t be going back to his proper era. “Way” starts out with a little Spanish flavor and sounds like it could have come from Out of the Blue or Eldorado. Our hero’s only had a day to adjust, but it isn’t going well and he would still rather return to the life he knew than the new and improved life the future offers. “Way” segues to a (near) instrumental, “Another Heart Breaks.” A choir sings the title and with the somber tone the feeling is reinforced that the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“Rain is Falling” likely closed side one when this was on vinyl. Lynne says it’s about scientists fooling about with time; he uses some of his most common themes: the color blue, thunder, lightning, and rain, but means them to represent something else this time. The song is a rumination on life; no matter where or when you find yourself, life goes on…rain keeps falling. Our hero is unable to return to his time and is adjusting by realizing that the trappings of the world may have changed but he has not, and neither have his feelings for his girl in the past.

Side 2: Like a good album should, it opens with a potential hit, though “From the End of the World” was not released as a single. This track is peppy and fun, but does nothing to advance the story. Our hero now seems petulant, and if he’s addressing his girl here it’s not with the wistful melancholy he’d used earlier. Again, though, there is dreamwork afoot.

Next is “The Lights Go Down,” about which Lynne says, “I guess the lights went down.” Dreams in the lyrics again, as well as the contrast of light and dark (for hope and despair), and sunshine. Our boy is still depressed about his situation and sees no way out. The tune, though, is deceptively happy with high ringing harmonies.

“Here is the News” follows, as Jeff tries some clever turns for the first time on this side. You can tell from his notes on the songs that he was prouder or at least more interested in this one, remarking that the news snippets that pepper the track were made up in the studio. This cut does further the story as our hero escapes Satellite 2 where his—benefactors? kidnappers?—had kept him. The audience—us—learns about it as a news audience, but we get no details. The album goes straight into “21st Century Man,” with our hero not only escaped from the satellite but having found a way back to his time as he “picks up his penny and his suitcase.” He is assured that his contemporaries will idolize him for bringing the news he’s seen—well, sure, because we treat our prophets so well. Themes are introduced here that resurface in the epilogue, and we’re reminded that there is nothing that is in-between—remember “Twilight”?

So on to “Hold On Tight,” which has gotten radio play and shown up in commercials, and why not? Jeff calls it “one of my jolliest songs,” and so it is, up there with “Rock and Roll is King” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Not great art, but Jeff Lynne never wanted to be Beethoven, just to roll him over. That percussive, locomotive engine is back, and we even get a little French lyric action. Then, the “Epilogue,” really an operatic reprise of many of Time’s leitmotifs, and that’s it…kind of.

ELO_-_Time_Tour_81-82 On tour for Time

On the expanded re-release you get three B-side rarities, and for me they hold up with the rest of the album, like bonus short stories by the same author at the end of a novel. Two mid-tempo and a slower number, good cool-down tracks for the end of the party.

Overall, I think this is truly a concept album to be considered alongside those of Genesis or Townshend’s later work. I don’t think Lynne would want to compare it to Quadrophenia, but he had a story to tell. I like the music better than the storytelling, but it’s there if you like.

Apples to apples, I hold this album up to its successor, Secret Messages, as my favorites as albums. Stronger than New World Record, punchier than Out of the Blue, they are both more focused than the older albums. They both have cuts as strong as anything on the others as well: “Hold On Tight,” “Secret Messages,” “Twilight,” “Rock and Roll is King” all hold their own against “Rockaria” or “Summer and Lightning.”

When I first heard ELO’s last three albums—1981-1986—I didn’t know they’d be the last (of the century, anyway). I also didn’t know much about the business of contractual obligation, serving out your commitments even if you had no inspiration.

What I knew was, new ELO! Cool!

I still think so.

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Filed under Rod Miller

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