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Down and out to no fixed abode where no one can get you.

April 9, 2009

There are some things in life I accept that I will never understand. Card games. Women. The unpredictable life spans of fish. Why I know I will always hear “Like a Prayer,” “Piano Man” and “Sweet Caroline” at any karaoke bar I venture into or any show in which alcohol is being served and the performer is taking requests. How they keep Lenin preserved. 

Fine. Maybe I’m not meant to know. That’s life. Well, except in Lenin’s case.

But as someone who knows and appreciates a lot about music and great songwriting, critical and commercial ignorance of brilliance always befuddles me a little. Eventually I figure it out — lack of promotion, poor transitions between the live and studio settings, lack of promotion, perfectionism gone mad on the part of the artist, lack of promotion or lack of promotion are usually the main things that lead to such ignorance.

But when it happens to a guy who’s already got the world on a string, I just can’t suss it out. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Jeff Lynne’s first solo album. And that preceding mention might be the only mention it gets. 

WHY?!

jeff_lynne-armchair_theatre

Jeff Lynne
Armchair Theatre
Reprise, 1990

01. Every Little Thing
02. Don’t Let Go
03. Lift Me Up
04. Nobody Home
05. September Song
06. Now You’re Gone
07. Don’t Say Goodbye
08. What Would it Take
09. Stormy Weather
10. Blown Away
11. Save Me Now 

Nowadays, it’s in fashion to consider Electric Light Orchestra something of a “guilty pleasure,” which is another thing that confuses me, although I think I have somewhat of a handle on it (the drums in “Don’t Bring Me Down,” right?). 

But when Jeff Lynne unleashed his first solo album in 1990, it should have been sent out to a rapturously awaiting public. Nevermind the fact that it was the first album featuring him at the forefront since his unceremonious termination of Electric Light Orchestra a few years earlier (I think we can all admit most of the 1980s material was cack anyway — apart from “All Over the World,” the only good thing about “Xanadu” and a viciously overlooked song for highlighting sports teams’ championship runs). But certainly the guy had built up enough good will in the 1970s with a string of ELO hits that you can probably sing at least five of without even ever having owned an album. 

But while he hadn’t delivered anything of “Evil Woman” or “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” quality with his voice at the front throughout the 1980s, he’d at least helped other artists write songs just as good and better. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” and Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” come immediately to mind, and the fact that he produced Petty’s Full Moon Fever, bits of Orbison’s Mystery Girl, George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, and bits of Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams and Brian Wilson’s self-titled solo debut showed that he could run with the best, and the best eagerly sought his council. Hell, even Del Shannon went to Lynne for an attempted career resurrection before killing himself in 1990.

And of course, we can’t discount Lynne’s involvement with Petty, Harrison, Orbison and Bob Dylan in the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup to end all supergroups, and a rare thing indeed — a supergroup that actually put out an album in 1988 worthy of the complete sum of its parts.

So for Jeff Lynne to do a solo album, it seemed like the time was right. He was either co-writing, producing or playing on several major hits in the 1980s, people still loved the classic ELO stuff and he had some pretty big name buddies. Is it any wonder Warner Bros. took up the solo album deal?

Armchair Theatre is not a classic album. But it’s a very, very good album. It’s the best thing he’d done since ELO’s Discovery (and probably better than that, even), when the songs are on, they’re untouchable, George Harrison shows up all over the place, and Tom Petty gets a co-writing credit on “Blown Away.” It’s really more of a solo Wilbury album as opposed to a Jeff Lynne album. Hell, even former-ELO keyman Richard Tandy is back playing alongside Lynne.

What f*cking more could people want? What on earth went wrong?

For starters, that continuing problem of lacking promotion dogged the album from the start. Why Warners didn’t put a bit more muscle behind it remains a mystery, but then again, it can’t be blamed as the singular pigeonhole considering the guy had a lot of momentum going for him already. If I was an exec at the time, I certainly might have figured the Beatle and Petty connections alone could shift several units, not to mention interest from all the casual music fans who’d kept an eye on his post-ELO career trajectory.

Having said that, I would have also splurged a bit for more posters in music shops and subways, or at least, some decent music videos.

I suppose the idea of letting primitive computer art students take control of the first single’s video wasn’t all bad, but when it became apparent that this was no Peter Gabriel- or (to a lesser musical extent, but no lesser video extent) Gloria Estefan exercise, why in God’s name they decided to reprise the idea for the second single’s video is beyond me. It’s easy to say in 2009 that they’re frustrating to watch, but I can say even as a kid only eight years of age in 1990, I probably would’ve started channel surfing for “Inspector Gadget.” 

Better videos certainly could have snagged him younger fans, but the older ones still have no excuse for not picking up on the record. Both “Every Little Thing” and “Lift Me Up” are glorious songs that stand just as tall as anything Lynne ever wrote for ELO or with anyone else, and “Nobody Home” and “Blown Away” both have simple charms about them that enhance their catchiness and worm their way into the listener’s brain.

Lynne’s covers of “September Song” and “Stormy Weather,” which he dedicated to his late mother are also surprisingly well done considering he delivers them in a very 1990 Jeff Lynne manner as opposed to trying to sound overtly retro. What’s more, both tunes feature some excellent slide work by Harrison.

Only in the uncomfortable stab at eastern-ness of “Now You’re Gone” and the lamentable Earth Day-styled message of “Save Me Now” does the album take horribly detrimental turns, but even so, two stinkers out of 11 tracks isn’t a bad ratio album at all. Hell, if you get that kind of ratio on an album today you automatically go to the top of Spin or Pitchfork’s year end best of list, don’t you?

Maybe Warner was more excited from the imminent Traveling Wilburys follow-up (which also performed less impressively than its predecessor, but still a lot better than Armchair Theatre). Lynne’s solo adventure topped out on the US charts at number 83.

In 2005, rumors circulated of a possible 15th anniversary Legacy Edition-styled rerelease, but even then no record company figured there was enough interest in the long-since buried album to resurrect it. The good news is you can shell out for used copies at Amazon.

Of course the Traveling Wilburys’ rereleases the next year were a huge hit. And Jeff’s production of Tom Petty’s Highway Companion was also revered. 

But I don’t know, I’m still listening to “Every Little Thing” wondering what the hell everyone else missed.

I don’t get it.

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