1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear #2

MATT KELLY continues his epic new series with his review of a 1983 album by ELO that keeps on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear #2

Electric Light Orchestra – Secret Messages (1983)

Seeking to mix the grandiose ELO of the past with present-day production, Jeff Lynne recorded a double-disc magnum opus named Secret Messages. But when he presented it to CBS records they were not impressed and refused to release it. Eventually, 34 minutes was cut and it saw the light of day as a single disc. It didn’t do much, being the first ELO album in yonks to not have a killer radio song.

But! In 2018 there came a 35th-anniversary edition, which in response to fan requests, restored Secret Messages to its 18-song, 76-minute long glory! Yay! And it’s terrible! CBS were right.

 

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Basically, Lynne was exhausted. He had an extremely busy past 15 years, touring his little afroed ass off, and constantly releasing one ambitious project after another. My impression is that Secret Messages was an attempt to push past and brush off the exhaustion, which predictably only exacerbated it.
Bereft of ideas and inspiration, Secret Messages contains multiple contenders for “worst ELO song ever” and even Lynne’s golden production ear fails – ‘Rock And Roll Is King’ sounds like shit, the drums weak and cheap, the synths nasty, the composition generic, a pale shadow of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ 11 years earlier.
There are some real horrors to be found here such as the godawful ‘No Way Out’, an attempt at a cool bluesy jazz number that is laugh-out-loud bad. ‘Letter From Spain’ manages to be a dump truck of poo, impressive for its under three-minute runtime – the most insipid, tepid material imaginable.
The album in general just drags its feet. Why does ‘Loser Gone Wild’ need to threaten six minutes? There isn’t enough energy. Time was a calm album, but paced things well, giving a wake-up call now and then. Secret Messages by comparison is a soporific ordeal. And I hate to pick on Lynne’s tribute to the fallen John Lennon, but my God is ‘Beatles Forever’ rubbish! Even Lynne finds it embarrassing, it being the only song he wanted withheld from the 35th-anniversary reissue. Maudlin, mawkish and foot-dragging, ‘Beatles Forever’ fails to be worthy of the Fab Four and doesn’t even capture Lynne’s obvious passion for them.
Yes, there’s a couple of highlights such as the fun, head-nodding ‘Four Little Diamonds’, but even that feels like a rehash of ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’. The closing eight-minute epic ‘Hello My Old Friend’ is also good, Richard Tandy coming through with lots of lovely synth work and an affecting vocal from Lynne.
But the album keeps snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – for example, ‘Mandalay’ has a great opening, moody and dark, with a thoroughly unexpected Dave Gahan impersonation from Lynne giving things a twist. But then a horrible tinny chorus breaks out and the atmosphere is ruined. The album is by turns insufferable, dull, and insufferably dull. As I sit listening to the humiliatingly badly produced ‘Time After Time’ with its farty synths and crappy backing vocals, remembering that this is the man who made A New World Record, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And ‘Train Of Gold’, Jesus Christ!
An unpleasant non sequitur after the success of Time, Secret Messages does have some glimpses of the Lynne genius that fans may want to extract, but as a complete album listening experience, it is excruciating.

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