Many readers are probably familiar with Electric Light Orchestra, more commonly known as ELO, and the band’s leader and main songwriter Jeff Lynne. Even if those names sound only vaguely familiar, most of Gen Z would recognize the song “Mr. Blue Sky“, featured in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II (2017). ELO has a unique sound that draws inspiration from earlier rock ‘n’ roll bands like the Beatles; their style mixes synthesized rock/pop and classical music, creating a discography that’s simultaneously diverse and unified, and their music continues to enjoy successful streaming on top apps like Spotify (what, they weren’t in anyone’s else’s Top 5 Artists last year?).
The double album Out of the Blue (1977), their most commercially successful album, might be the one most familiar to 2023 listeners—after all, “Mr. Blue Sky” is off that album. It’s a great piece of art, no doubt, but there’s another album I’d like to call your attention to, one that often gets swept under the rug (although it broke out on top of the UK Albums Chart in its prime). Time (1981) can best be described as an epic space opera about a man who has been transported from 1981 to the year 2095, thrown into a strange futuristic world that he cannot return from. He feels cheated out of the reality he should have had back in his present, where he has left his lover behind, and it is to her that many of the songs are addressed. The story that Time tells is concise and vivid, complete with an emotional arc, and it’s my personal belief that the songs, although excellent on their own, are enjoyed best within the context of the album to understand the story at play.
The album opens with “Prologue,” a flurry of odd synthesized sounds. A distorted voice, distinctly different from any other voice we hear on the album, proclaims: “I have a message from another time.”
Is the voice speaking to us, the audience, who “tread the halls of sanity” and are “unable to go beyond,” or to the man, who presumably may be dreaming, warning him of the world that is “just beyond the border of [his] waking mind”? Both? With this strange opening to set the tone, the second track, “Twilight,” is from the perspective of the man; he feels out of control and swept up by whatever force took him there: “With your head held high and your scarlet lies / You came down to me from the open skies.” The speaker muses that he “only meant to stay awhile,” as if he did choose this adventure, even if it’s all a “dream,” but suddenly realizes that his return to his own time is uncertain, perhaps impossible. “You brought me here, but can you take me back again?”
“Twilight” blends into the next track, “Yours Truly, 2095.” In the future, the man encounters a kind of robot or android woman who looks similar in appearance to his 1981 lover but is cold and emotionless in comparison. He misses his lover too much to become seduced by the future (“I don’t know where you are / But I miss you so much till then”). The man doesn’t deny that he finds the woman attractive—“She tells me that she likes me very much / But when I try to touch / She makes it all too clear”—but she’s an uncanny valley of a person, an empty shell with a “heart of stone.” The woman asks (in a voice eerily reminiscent of Siri 30 years before its release), “Is that what you want?” over and over again. Even though the man is enticed by the future, this new world is not really what he wants.
Following this is “Ticket to the Moon,” where the man is on a “one-way” trip to the moon, an experience he knows he should be happy about, but he’d rather be back with his lover in 1981 (“Yeah, I’ve got a ticket to the moon / But I’d rather see the sunrise in your eyes”). This shows a begrudging acceptance of the speaker’s fate, one he feels he is partially responsible for: “I paid the fare, what more can I say?” It’s almost like he has no choice but to keep heading deeper into the future. This melancholic acceptance continues into “The Way Life’s Meant to Be,” which depicts the man wandering through the same streets of his hometown that he once knew so well, but now has been forever changed by time. “As I gaze around at these strangers in town / I guess the only stranger is me.” The man experiences a strange discomfort in the defamiliarized environment: “And when I see what they’ve done to this place that was home / Shame is all that I feel.” He’s accepted his place in the future, knowing that there is no way to change it as he says, “Too late, too late to cry, the people say,” but he resents this fate. The people of the future call out to him, “Look and see the wonders of our world,” yet the speaker still cannot be swayed, reminiscing about 1981 and dreaming of his lover, “Just to see your face instead of this place.”
“Another Heart Breaks” follows a mostly instrumental track with “Another heart breaks” being the only words spoken with the sound of a heartbeat flatlining towards the beginning. In physical record form, this is the last track on Side One, symbolizing a change in the man’s mentality. In “Rain is Falling,” beginning on Side Two, the man almost seems to develop a bitter and resentful tone. He’s not merely sad anymore; he’s almost apathetic about his situation as he watches the rain as if it were an ordinary day in 1981: “Nothing’s really changed.” The song is interspersed with nursery rhymes like “Rain, rain, go away” and “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring.” “But with all their great inventions / And all their good intentions, here I stay,” the speaker states. Even though the future is full of wonder and innovation, the one thing it can’t do is bring him back home; therefore, it’s useless to him.
“From the End of the World” solidifies the change in mood. Up until this point, the speaker has felt wonder, sadness, regret, and resentful bitterness about his situation, but here, he becomes cynical. Speaking to his lover, who is now only a memory, he criticizes her: “Oh, you, you’re so hard to get to / Oh, you, you don’t wanna play.” He “sent a dream last night” to her, or a letter, from the future, but whatever attempts he’s made at getting in contact with his lover, in dreams or otherwise, it’s not working. She cannot answer him and does not know where he is, but somehow, he feels led on and abandoned by her: “Oh, you, you keep me hangin’ / ‘Round and ‘round and ‘round and ‘round.” The anger feels less directed at his true lover, but at his desire to see her, and how that desire falls flat in the face of reality. The singer’s voice disappears into a synthesizer on the last word, perhaps representing the man’s integration into the future.
“The Lights Go Down” may be thought of as the man’s final love letter to the past, either to his lover or to 1981 itself. “I know the way that I feel is wrong, so wrong / But I gotta carry on / When you ain’t around.” The tone shift is sudden as if the man has been trying to pretend through the last two tracks that he doesn’t care anymore, but now it’s all too clear that he’s still hurting, asserting “I need you” and “I love you, baby.” “Time rolls away,” though, and there’s nothing he can do.
“Here is the News” moves to eliminate the man’s personal voice and takes on the format of a futuristic newscast about regular meteor showers, a cure for “rocket lag” (as opposed to our contemporary jet lag), and the newsflash that “someone left their life behind in a plastic bag.” Still, the remnants of the man’s voice remain with the line “I wanna go home, I want my baby back.” The next track, “21st Century Man,” completely becomes the voices of the future. They try to persuade the man that since he is now a 21st century man, he can do “most anything;” they fail to understand why he isn’t happy with the future. “Though you ride on the wheels of tomorrow / You still wander the fields of your sorrow,” they observe and insist that he should be happy and glad.
“Hold On Tight,” the penultimate track, comes as an unexpectedly upbeat and cheery song in comparison to the events of the album. Whether these are the voices of the future, telling the man to keep his chin up, or the voices of the past, assuring him that there is still hope, we aren’t sure: “When you see your ship go sailing / When you feel your heart is breaking / Hold on tight to your dream.” The man’s “dream” can only be to return home—so, even though a round-trip to the future is supposedly impossible, could it be that he can go back to 1981?
The album itself, as originally released, doesn’t seem to have a definitive answer to this. It ends, somewhat abruptly, with the epilogue, repeating words from “21st Century Man” and, mysteriously, the phrase, “And he arrives on this day of all days / May the world still remember him.” Is this the man waking up from his dream?
There is no catharsis for this question unless we look at the three bonus tracks which were released on the 2001 remaster of the album. “The Bouncer” clearly shows the man on the verge of returning home, ecstatic to see his lover, “Do you remember, you said to me / That you would wait, wait for me eternally?” The second bonus track, “When Time Stood Still,” seems to portray the man’s journey backwards; he enters a sort of limbo, with “No big machine or April showers / No submarines, no plastic flowers;” in other words, nothing. The tragic end to the story is in the final bonus track, “Julie Don’t Live Here.” He goes to his lover’s house only to find that everything has changed since he’s been gone and she has since moved away, presumably moving on with her life and leaving him behind. “But things have changed / Everything I ever knew / Was gone or rearranged.”
It seems like it would have been better had he stayed in the future after all; how he will deal with this loss is not the point of the story. This unexpected turn, which again is only comprehensible through the bonus tracks, reveals the true underlying message of the album: that time is unstoppable, even with the power of technology, and that things cannot go back to the way they were no matter how hard you try. In 1981, fear of the future and new technology, as well as the fear of losing what once was, were both very prevalent. Those fears have been the same throughout human history, and we continue to have them today. But time doesn’t stop. Are we brave enough to accept change?