CD Review of Balance of Power by Electric Light Orchestra

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Balance of Power
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Epic / Legacy
Released: 2007
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Welcome to the most maligned item in the entire Electric Light Orchestra catalog…well, at least, of the albums in which Jeff Lynne actually had a part. (Someday, we’ll discuss ELO Pt. 2 – but not today.)

The title of the album may have been Balance of Power, but it probably wasn’t really intended as a statement about how things had shifted within the ELO organization; although longtime bassist Kelly Groucutt had departed during the recording of the previous record, Strange Messages – leaving the official line-up as only Lynne, keyboardist Richard Tandy, and drummer Bev Bevan – the reality was that the group had been Lynne’s baby for quite some time before Groucutt’s departure.

By this point, Lynne had left behind all his flirtations with the orchestral and had descended into what some might call “synthesizer hell.” He’d been doing a fair amount of production work during the ‘80s, including songs for Dave Edmunds’s Information and for Olivia Newton-John on the “Xanadu” soundtrack; he’d also contributed a few solo tracks to the soundtrack for “Electric Dreams” (including the dated but fun “Video”), where he’d clearly been enjoying how much fun he could have with a keyboard. When Balance of Power emerged, the older fans were rather horrified at how Lynne had seemingly thrown away the hallmarks of the ELO sound in favor of a more contemporary feel. In retrospect, however, the album isn’t nearly as bad as it might’ve sounded at the time.

Hell, with so many new artists these days falling back on the retro sounds of the ‘80s, this might well be the perfect time to reevaluate its worth.

There’s no question that the opening pair of tracks (“Heaven Only Knows” and “So Serious”), while definitely a different sound for ELO, were nonetheless power-pop powerhouses, each full of layered vocals and bursting with a huge chorus. There’s also the album’s big hit, “Calling America,” as well as the ballad, “Getting to the Point,” which was inexplicably unsuccessful as a single. In fact, when it comes to catchiness, virtually every song here is up to Lynne’s standards of memorability – and his standards are pretty damned high. Really, the biggest issues with Balance of Power were twofold: It wasn’t what ELO fans had come to expect from the band’s sound, and Lynne’s new instrumental direction was grounded in the trends of the day far more than it had ever been before.

“Secret Lives” and “Sorrow About to Fall” unquestionably have the most archaic sounds on the album; the keyboards on the former sound as though Lynne flew in Bob James to make a cameo, and the latter features the wailing of a ubiquitous ’80s saxophone. Interestingly, however, the reissue’s bonus tracks include an alternate take of “Secret Lives” without the keyboards and an alternate mix of “Sorrow About to Fall” which lessens the appearance of the saxophone.

Of the other bonus tracks, there’s an extremely interesting alternate version of “Heaven Only Knows” where Lynne adjusts the arrangement of the song by lessening the attack of the killer synths, making it less of a propulsive new-wave pop track while intensifying the melancholy of the lyrics. (“I’m really on the ledge / I’m trying to find a way / I’m walking down a stretch of lonely road today.”) There also two non-album tracks that have been rescued from B-side oblivion – the drum machine and keyboards of “Caught in a Trap” and the faux rockabilly of “Destination Unknown”; the previously-unreleased “In for the Kill” is enjoyable as well, although it’s pretty clear that Lynne abandoned it at some point, then recycled his favorite bits to create “Caught in a Trap.”

In the new liner notes for the reissue, Lynne offers the decidedly dubious suggestion that Balance of Power turned out to be one of the better ELO albums of the century. While it’s doubtful that even its strongest supporters would try to make that claim, it’s worth giving it another listen, perhaps programming the newly-provided alternate versions in place of the originals. There’s definitely more to the album than “Calling America.”

~Will Harris