This wound up being the last album by the original incarnation of one of the most popular bands of the Progressive Rock era, the Electric Light Orchestra, familiarly known as ‘ELO’. Now, ELO have their detractors in general, largely because they represented the same alternative to the more ‘legitimate’ Prog-Rock bands such as Pink Floyd and Yes that Duran Duran represented to New Order or Depeche Mode, or that Jewel represented to the likes of Tori Amos…the ‘safe’, accessible, commercialized version of what had originally been a fairly esoteric genre. That said, there is one important element to ELO’s relationship to its more ambitious counterparts that does not apply in the other cases I mentioned…Prog-Rock’s unfortunate tendency to, forgive my bluntless, disappear up its own ass in terms of over-elaborate concepts and excessive self-indulgence. ELO’S lack of pretention in many ways constituted an advantage over their peers, and their frontman and primary auteur, Jeff Lynne, not only had a real gift for writing catchy melodies but was perhaps the greatest music producer and arranger in the history of Rock.
However, as much as I am inclined to defend the band’s oeuvre as a whole, I did not really come to praise them with this particular review. Now, Balance of Power is not the band’s absolute worst effort…certainly not as bad as their appalling second album, which I’ve seen make appearances on “Worst Albums of All Time” lists. Indeed, all of their first three records, where they were trying to make Avant-Garde music and were mostly just making unpleasant noises, were quite a bit worse than this. But after a long string of successful albums that even at their weakest (e.g. the widely-mocked Discovery) were almost always significantly better than this, Balance of Power made for a distinctly sad and disappointing farewell to one of Prog-Rock’s most beloved bands.
The primary problem with this album is simple and pervasive—it is, quite simply, the most pathetic and trivial excuse for a ‘Breakdown Album’ ever put out by a well-known music act. Usually the great Breakdown Albums have real impetus behind them: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear were written in the wake of devastating romantic heartbreak, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band was written after the dissolution of an entire cultural movement, Michael Jackson’s HIStory came in the wake of Jackson’s first accusations of child abuse, etc.. This album, on the other hand, is basically song after song of Jeff Lynne whining that he doesn’t want to be saddled with the rest of the band anymore. I’m not saying this is an unreasonable grievances on a private level, but it doesn’t even come close to justifying the amount of melodrama slathered onto this album. Even The Who By Numbers wasn’t as solipsistic and self-pitying as this.
The album does at least boast a decent lead single, its only hit, “Calling America”. It isn’t really as compelling as many of the band’s earlier hits, even from their declining later period, but at least it has nothing to with the rest of the album’s dubious ‘Concept’. It tells a rather depressing story about a British man whose girlfriend moves to America and essentially dumps him by giving him a fake contact number, but it tells it in music catchy and forceful enough to make this the band’s last real hit single.
The only other really worthy item is the intriguing oddity “Endless Lies”. Originally an outtake from the original double-album format planned for their previous release, Secret Messages, they apparently liked it enough to salvage it here. Its distinctive sound instantly marks it as part of that earlier record and makes it sound quite out of place here, but as it was intended for another album, it too has no involvement with the weak concept on display in the rest of the songs.
Apart from those two songs, though, there’s not really much of interest here. “Getting to the Point” is at least a fairly pretty ballad, and the album’s second single, “So Serious”, is catchy, but its cheerfully inane music doesn’t seem to match its self-consciously worried lyrics. Now, lyrical dissonance (upbeat music matched to downbeat lyrics, or vice versa) can certainly be harnessed as a deliberate dramatic device for ironic effect, but when not done correctly it can seem to represent more of a complete disconnect between music and lyrics. This was actually one of ELO’s perennial problems even in their heyday, and this is one of the most severe cases of it.
Even worse, and possibly due to his endlessly-stated disinterest in continuing the band, Jeff Lynne just seems to have stopped trying here. Lynne is, as I said, a genius-level arranger, the man George Harrison himself used as his go-to production guy, but these songs are far less distinctive than not only the Orchestral Classical-Rock Fusion of the band’s early years, but even the ambitious Synth-Prog of their last two releases, Time and Secret Messages. For the most part, this album sounds like it could have been made by any run-of-the-mill, anonymous Synth-Pop band.
And please remember…the above-mentioned tracks are the good ones on this album. By contrast, “Sorrow About to Fall” is one of the most unconvincing attempts to summon dramatic force I’ve ever heard in a Rock song. Even more pathetic is “Without Someone”, which initially sounds like a sad love song but ultimately proves to be just more of Lynne’s whining about the band. The extremely simplistic, almost dada-ist “Is It Alright?” just comes off as bizarre, and the strange, ugly, almost Country-esque album closer “Send It” not only sounds absolutely awful, but makes almost offensively reductive use of “the dream is gone” rhetoric to overdramatize Jeff Lynne’s paltry artistic crisis.
I don’t mean to insult Jeff Lynne…lyrics were never really his strong point to begin with, and maybe if he could have better articulated his issues in words, the result would have seemed more sympathetic and better justified this album’s dramatic content. But as it is, it seems like a lot of bluster and self-dramatization over ultimately very little substance, and when you combine that with the mediocre music, the result comes off as a gigantic disappointment, especially given the band’s legacy. Balance of Power isn’t unlistenable, for the most part, which does put it ahead of the band’s first three albums, as I said before. But as a final swan song for a once-great band, it’s a pretty dismal way to end things. Of course, Jeff Lynne “reunited” ELO a couple of decades later (actually, he recruited a new backup band and gave it the same name, but since Lynne was the band’s central auteur to begin with, the result was more authentic than it sounds), and recorded a much better ‘final’ album by the band called Zoom. So perhaps that album should be regarded as their real last hurrah. Certainly, as with the question of whether Let It Be or Abby Road was the Beatles’ ‘real’ last album, one of the two possible answers is much more satisfying and comforting than the other, so in this ambiguous situation, I suppose we can all make our own choice about what was ELO’s ‘real’ final album…the frankly excellent Zoom, or the lukewarm disappointment on review here.