In 1981, the British rock band Electric Light Orchestra was riding high. Fresh off a seven-year streak of albums that had succeeded on both sides of the Atlantic and with multiple top-40 singles, ELO had mastered a combination of rock energy and pop sensibilities with string orchestration. At a similar point in their careers, many bands have been inclined to stick to what works — to keep giving fans what they expect, typically with diminishing creative and commercial returns.
Instead, Jeff Lynne, the driving force behind the band (as singer/songwriter/producer/arranger), did something a little different. Having already ditched the string section that had carried ELO up to the disco-inflected smash-hit album Discovery, Lynne welcomed the ’80s by adapting to the new musical word of synthesizers and electronica. In releasing the synth-pop-influenced sci-fi concept album Time, he not only proved that one of the most popular bands of the ’70s still had some creative juice left; he also provided a sonically immersive and conceptually engaging vision of the future. This summer, Time turned 40.
Time is a concept album, the group’s second. Indeed, it owes something to Eldorado, the group’s first such effort. That album used the band’s own talents, complemented by a full orchestra, to paint a lush vision of a dreamer who strays into fantasy realms of his own imagining. On Time, Lynne similarly imagines a far-off world. But this time, its distance is chronological: The album is about the journey of a man from the then-present of 1981 into a future world beyond his reckoning. This led to its designation, in Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s time-travel anthology The Time Traveler’s Almanac, as “the first major concept album devoted entirely to time travel.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Time is how something that breaks so thoroughly from what fans had come to expect of ELO also exists on a continuum with the band’s earlier work. An ELO fan at the time doing his first spin of the record would recognize, on the first song, vocals processed through vocoder (used to great effect on “Mr. Blue Sky”) and filtered drum fills (evident as early as 1975’s “Fire on High,” from Face the Music). Even the sci-fi concept wasn’t completely unfamiliar for ELO: You can get that on “Mission (A New World Record),” from 1976. The album does bear a lingering string presence, hearkening back to ELO’s prime, but, fittingly for a futurist vision, it’s carried primarily by synthesizers, keyboards, and vocoders.
As befits an album about jumping through time, Time borrows from ELO’s own past, influenced by contemporary trends in music and bearing the hallmarks of some of Lynne’s own heroes. Beneath the Spanish castanets of “The Way Life’s Meant to Be,” it’s not hard to detect the soulful plaintiveness of Roy Orbison, with whom Lynne would later work as a producer. That song’s guitar solo has traces not just of ELO’s “On the Border” but also “Heroes and Villains” by the Beach Boys. And it wouldn’t be an ELO product without a slightly-more-than-allusion to the Beatles, whom Jeff admired and for whose surviving members he would also do some work as a producer. If the refrain of “Ticket to the Moon” isn’t meant to mimic “Flying” by the Beatles, then Lynne might have a case of unconscious plagiarism on his hands.
Time isn’t just a potpourri of the past, however. Across multiple songs, Lynne shows that he could synth-pop with the best of ’em — and that groups in that genre who were popular at the time could perhaps learn a thing or two from a rock veteran such as he. The purest distillation of this is the instrumental “Another Heart Breaks,” a song that is all atmospherics and synthesizer textures but that sounds like an equally entertaining journey through time anyway. But other songs also offer evidence of Lynne’s ability to update ELO’s gift for melody with new instrumentation without losing any of the group’s soul. “Twilight,” the first real song of the album, layers hook upon catchy hook both to lure the listener in and to convey the bewilderment of entering a new world. And Lynne hardly feels bound to deliver the kind of generic synth-pop that was expected of one using the new tools of the ’80s — he never totally turned away from the rock and rock-adjacent genres in which he was schooled. Past and present influences combine to create the album’s futuristic soundscape.
Even as Lynne, in making Time, had one foot still in the past, so does the unnamed main character of the album, who spends most of his time in the far-future world longing to return to the one he left behind. You could interpret this as a kind of lack of adventurousness on the part of both the character and Lynne; or you could accept it as an assertion that even a future full of technological marvels can prove hollow if life’s deeper needs are unfulfilled. In “Yours Truly, 2095,” the album’s protagonist meets a female robot who resembles the woman he left in the past; she is described as a technical marvel: “The latest in technology / Almost mythology / But she has a heart of stone.” Likewise, “Here Is the News” is a relentless recitation of random headlines of the day, something modern Twitter users might find familiar. A repeated lyric motif of Time goes: “Though you ride on the waves of tomorrow / you still wander the fields of your sorrow.” Those of any time, whose deeper longings go unmet amid material prosperity and technological advancement, can surely relate. It’s enough to make even someone from the present day understand the narrator’s somewhat amusing desire, from today’s perspective, to return to “the good old 1980s / when things were so uncomplicated.”
There are legitimate criticisms to make of Time. Even though it’s a concept album, the order of its songs doesn’t seem that important. That’s mostly because the story itself is a bit muddled, as Lynne himself has admitted. Asked once whether the journey at the album’s heart was a real one or just imagined — “It’s either real or it’s a dream there’s nothing that is in between,” as the lyrics of “Twilight” go — he responded:
This is what I’d like to know, because it’s baffled me since I wrote it, if he has actually gone [to the future], or if he’s just thinking about it. . . . It could be real, or it could be a dream . . . I’m not sure. I’d rather not say, because I don’t know either. I’m supposed to, but I don’t.
But the album’s greatness transcends Lynne’s own lack of certainty about its meaning, making Time a timeless work. Unfortunately for the band, Time marked the twilight of its own career: ELO’s flourishing is bookended by its two concept albums. But we can still enjoy what the band did accomplish — even those of us who never experienced 1981.