ELO (or the Electric Light Orchestra) have enjoyed a slew of chart hits and toppers over the years, from their early numbers, 10538 Overture’ ‘Showdown’ and ‘Evil Woman’ to radio staples such as ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, ‘Livin Thing’ and ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’. But longtime fans of the band may be surprised to see me reviewing this album of theirs in particular; the last in their original tenure.
By the time 1986 rolled around, the band were tired out; namely singer-songwriter and co-producer, Jeff Lynne. The band’s previous record, Secret Messages, was released three years earlier; but had to be cut down from a double record to a single LP for financial reasons. The band had also seen dwindling crowds at their live shows and were delivered the fateful news that there would be no tour to promote the album, either. The band’s bassist, Kelly Groucutt, left the band and even sued Lynne for no touring income as a result.
Lynne was tired, but contractually obliged to release one more album under the titanic ELO name. So, in 1986, Balance of Power was unveiled. It did okay and the band did some shows between Europe and their homeland, but ultimately Lynne would disband the orchestral pop-rock outfit shortly after and distract himself with other projects – he would later, however, reform the group under the name, Jeff Lynne’s ELO.
As a result of all the tumult, contractual obligation and heavy use of synth on this album – even replacing the typical strings one would find on an Electric Light Orchestra record – Balance of Power is often seen as one of ELO’s weakest releases; rushed and spat out in a vaguely-polished form. But honestly? I can’t say I agree with that verdict at all.
Sure, the cleverly-crafted fusion of guitar and string – present in songs like ‘Showdown’, ‘Ma-Ma-Ma Belle’ and ‘Livin’ Thing’ – isn’t here. Instead, Lynne gifts us ten damn good tracks that are full of infectious synth-pop hooks or beautifully expressed emotion. No, it’s not Out of the Blue. It’s not A New World Record and it’s not even really Discovery. But it’s worth a listen regardless.
The album opens with the vocoded call of ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a catchy – if repetitive – track. It has all the trademark Lynne touches; with Beatles’ pop, Queen-level overdubs and a driving beat.
‘So Serious’ was the second single of the record and supposedly a snide swipe at Lynne’s growing sickness with his band. Or it’s about a troubled relationship. Either way it couldn’t be more of a ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ in its upbeat nature; jaunty beat and catchy chorus included. A not-even-three-minute slice of power pop heaven.
‘Getting to the Point’ reached a woeful 97 on the UK Singles Chart – it wasn’t even released in the rest of Europe – and honestly that’s more heartbreaking to hear than the underestimated beauty of this track. Again, either echoing Lynne’s lamentation on the state of the band or a problematic coupling, the lyrics are well-written and the whole track just builds and builds. I am a tad biased given my personal connection to it – ‘Getting to the Point’ was the reason behind a major turning point in my life – but still, it deserves more appreciation. Much more. Plus, that sax.
Possibly my favourite from Balance of Power is its next track, the non-single ‘Secret Lives’. By now one would think Lynne’s just gone through the worst breakup possible – the song detailing someone unearthing and slowly accepting that their lover leads ‘secret lives’, and that they only wish to be in them, too. Either way, the chorus is one of the best in ELO’s career, and generally a sleek tune.
‘Is It Alright’ signals another of the album’s darker tracks in tone, but still full of subtle groove and funk elements; reminiscent of Discovery’s ‘Last Train to London’. Lynne gets to showcase his vocals on this one, remarking on the life of the elusive ‘Joe’.
‘Sorrow About to Fall’ is another great track, doubling down on the synth (there is some subtle sax from Christian Schneider on this one, however) and providing yet another ‘So Serious’ in its sound and ultimate lyrical nature. Ultimately, though, Lynne could be singing about massacres and I’d still be tapping my feet along to his rhythm.
‘Without Someone’ is perhaps the most forgettable track from Balance of Power, but proves nectar to the ears; providing a much-needed calm down after the onslaught of punchy, upbeat pop-rockers. You could really sit back to this one and let Lynne’s smooth voice wash over you in waves of pearlescent beauty.
‘Calling America’ was the album’s first single and biggest hit, going on to reach 29 on the UK Singles Chart. Echoing the same ordeal of ELO’s earlier hit, ‘Telephone Line’, the song deals with someone trying to contact his overseas lover. It was my first step into this album and it’s still damn catchy all these years later. A truly exquisite gem from Lynne, even at the curtain call of the band’s original career.
‘Endless Lies’ was intended as an homage for fellow musician Roy Orbison on the band’s previous record, Secret Messages, but was instead edited into a more concise form and placed on BoP. One can easily hear the Orbison in it (not literally) and how the late legend’s vocals would have fitted seamlessly in. Interestingly, Jeff Lynne would partner up with Orbison (as well as former Beatle George Harrison, Bob Dylan and lead-Heartbreaker Tom Petty) a year later for the seminal supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. Oh, and, the song is alright; but proves a touch out of place on this particular record.
‘Send It’ isn’t perhaps the most defining closer Lynne could have chosen, but a nice contrast to the previous track. A fast-paced, rock ‘n roll type tune, it’s nice to tap along to. I can’t help feeling ‘Secret Lives’ or ‘Calling America’ might have been a better fit, though.
All in all, ELO’s eleventh studio release is a worthy one; but still proves elusive in its unfortunate reputation. Balance of Power struggles to cast away the chains of orchestral pop-rock elitism and general troubles from inside the band itself. I doubt Lynne likes the record at all, either, but there are gems on it and more. Even the throwaway album tracks are worth a listen or two; and where there are singles, there is absolute dynamite. It’s not Out of the Blue, but it’s ELO all the same.