The lean, tune-focused Zoom was the Electric Light Orchestra album that Jeff Lynne should have put out at the turn of the ’80s, as he dialed back the “I Am the Walrus”-era Beatles obsessions while retaining all of his trademark hooky songcraft.
“I think I’d gone about as far as I could go in that direction,” Lynne told the Daily News in 2001. “Everything got bigger and bigger. Back at that time, I had to find out what it was like to have the most of everything.”
Unfortunately, when Zoom arrived on June 12, 2001, there wasn’t exactly a huge demand for what this underrated LP had to offer. Even the appearances of George Harrison and Ringo Starr couldn’t stoke up much interest. The first album issued under the ELO banner in 15 years disappeared so quickly that a planned tour was quickly scrapped.
The band would return to dormancy until 2012, when Lynne decided to painstakingly rerecord a solo set of the Electric Light Orchestra’s most familiar hits for a best-of collection. That led to a series of reissues and then long-awaited new music from the renamed Jeff Lynne’s ELO.
Along the way, Zoom somehow became the failed launch that only eventually led to a third-act rocket ride. But it’s much more than a footnote: Instead, this project zips along through a series of smartly constructed tracks that recall everything that made ELO part of the musical fabric of the ’70s, but with precious little of what eventually turned them into a caricature of the decade’s pretensions.
Listen to ELO’s ‘Moment in Paradise’
Zoom will never be confused with the Electric Light Orchestra’s quirky, deeply engaging 1971 debut, No Answer, but it isn’t slowed by the sometimes overly ornate pop structures of 1977’s Out of the Blue either.
“What I’ve found is that I leave spaces now. I leave holes where the song can breathe, where before I would fill it in with as much cement as possible,” Lynne told the Orange County Register in 2001. “In the past, I felt like I could do whatever I wanted just because I could. No need to have just one piano – I can have six of them! It was innocently done, but not particularly clever. And I’ve since found out that recording six pianos is a really bad thing to do.”
Lynne’s Beatles fetish was widely understood long before he ended up working with the group as a producer through the ’90s — collaborating with Paul McCartney, Starr, Harrison and (through the magic of their so-called “Three-tles” updates of old demos) even John Lennon. Helming Harrison’s 1987 comeback Cloud Nine led directly to a collaboration with the all-star Traveling Wilburys, which also included Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty.
What was missing, however, was ELO’s distinctive voice. “Working with all those guys, I’d more or less run out of heroes,” Lynne mused in a 2001 talk with the Denver Post. “I realized I hadn’t done any of my own music for a long time. So that’s what I did.”
In keeping with the era, both Harrison (on “All She Wanted” and “A Long Time Gone”) and Starr (“Easy Money” and “Moment in Paradise”) take part – and that might have came off like a name-dropping bid for attention on an another project. But they actually provided more of a throwback connection to the Electric Light Orchestra’s classic Fab-focused sound than the original group could manage by the time it limped to an unhappy end with 1986’s synth-heavy Balance of Power.
“I think the long-distance gap of 15 years gave me a very good perspective of what I did earlier,” Lynne told the Evening Mail in 2001. “I’ve learned a lot during that time.”
Listen to ELO’s ‘State of Mind’
He brought all of that to bear on Zoom, even if the results couldn’t match the chart-dominating performances of his former collaborators.
“Working with them broadened my mind,” Lynne told the Evening Mail, “and I thought, ‘What if I applied this new knowledge to a new ELO album?’ I’d probably see it differently and do it differently. I have learned a lot working with all those guys, all my favorite guys. It was a total pleasure.”
Zoom barely crept into the U.K. Top 40 – and stalled out at No. 94 in the U.S., his worst showing since ELO’s debut. But it heralded a leaner feel and brighter sound that carried over, eventually, into 2015’s Alone in the Universe and 2019’s From Out of Nowhere, and both soared into the U.K. Top 5.
“I’ve gone through the bollocks of 10,000 cellos and how many can you get on there?” Lynne admitted in a Reuters interview. “You can do as many as you like, but it all turns to harmonic distortion.”
If there’s a quibble, it’s one that continues through to Lynne’s more recent solo passes at ELO material: He likewise plays the bulk of the instruments, meaning there is precious little real musical interaction: Guys like drummer Bev Bevan, violinist Mik Kaminski and the late bassist and backing vocalist Kelly Groucutt are sorely missed. Even ELO stalwart Richard Tandy appears only on the opening cut.
Endless overdubs can’t mimic the intimacy that true interaction provides, and Zoom occasionally could have used a bit less manicured perfection. Still, the album smartly connects back to the muscular crunch of “Do Ya” (head straight to the stomping “State of Mind”), the melancholic arc of “Telephone Line” (there’s a simply beautiful ache to “Just for Love”) or the anthemic groove of “Turn to Stone” (on the gorgeous “Lonesome Lullaby”) – no small thing, at this late date.
“I’ve always tried to make music that sounds somewhat old-fashioned, that sounds timeless, whatever that is. But in the past that could lead to trying too hard,” Lynne told the Orange County Register. “Now, the song just happens, and then it’s finished – and it sounds like one of mine. There’s no plan anymore. I just make records to please meself.”