Prince and Beyoncé are anomalies. The two artists have catalogues of hits that perfectly blend sounds and styles, resulting in music that reaches beyond the cavern of Top 40 radio, into the daylight of something brighter, more meaningful. Some artists, like Crossfade or Chevelle, make music that dwells in the shadows of that very same cavern, churning out unimaginative tunes equal parts butt and rock.
I know that Electric Light Orchestra isn’t on the same level as Prince and Beyoncé. Few are. But Jeff Lynne (the man behind ELO) is a songwriting mastermind who has created some of the best hooks of all time. God forbid his passing, but once that day comes, I promise that many will revisit ELO’s catalogue and discover tracks such as “Sweet is the Night” that they’ll be hooked on for weeks.
The Beach Boys’ and Beatles’ influence here is palpable. And yet ELO is very much a product of its time. It isn’t difficult to imagine a disco remix of “Sweet is the Night” coming on right after a dance-off to the eternal classic “Disco Duck.” Somehow though, much like their better known hit “Mr. Blue Sky,” Jeff Lynne and ELO produce a song in “Sweet is the Night” that transcends a period of time or style of music.
This transcendence comes as a result of Lynne’s arrangement. The song begins with a familiar do-wop melody, harkening back to a simpler time, a time in which Marty McFly’s parents may not have ended up together had Marty not interfered at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. That melody seamlessly falls into the background, providing structure to the song, as a string section bursts through at :20, shattering any premonition you may have had about where the song was headed.
Lynne’s vocals come in shortly thereafter. The lyrics aren’t complex and don’t push boundaries quite like Lynne’s influences do. That’s okay though. ELO could be singing gibberish and it wouldn’t matter because their harmonies are so in sync, the production so tight, that at 1:25, the song goes from “I could listen to the rest of this” to “This must be what they play when you get to heaven.”
The remaining two minutes are bliss. That’s the thing about ELO songs. Once Lynne gets you there, you’re gravy. And the beauty of their greatest hits is that in each song, you can hear Lynne building the song piece by piece, almost like watching someone make cookies. Except they just keep throwing in really delicious ingredients. You’re watching going, “That looks so amazing that I’ll eat the cookie dough right now,” and then the baker tosses some peanut butter cups in and somehow it’s better than you ever imagined.
It’s hard to imagine that this came out in 1977 considering how incredible it still sounds almost 40 years after being recorded. That’s part of the magic of ELO. Lynne’s body of work is a testament to the fact that timelessness is essential in pop music. He doesn’t belong in the top echelon of artistry where few reside, but he’s a pop genius and should be heralded as such.