Album review: Electric Light Orchestra – Secret Messages (1983)

Secret Messages - Album by Electric Light Orchestra | Spotify

A hearty shoutout to Moonlight Betrothed for keeping the reviews on this site to the original black metal/dark ambient theme. Meanwhile, I have gotten increasingly bored of writing about metal. This is an enduring problem of mine when engaging with metal communities; the degree of “loyalty” that is expected can be a little bit over the top. Metal is very important to me, but I am not going to ignore other music in some quest to be pure or “true.”

There is a very small Facebook group that was formed recently called “Dungeon Roots: A Tree of Knowledge.” Its purpose is to stress the experimental, krautrock and other origins of DS that frequently are left out in Ellefson v. Vikernes type discussions.

I posted once there about the first Madrigals EP and what influenced its composition. While it has some of the traditional DS markers (instrumental keyboard music with slow-mid tempos, some medieval fantasy atmosphere) those songs really came together during nearly a year of pandemic binge-listening. Fief and Burzum were definitely in the mix, but by far I was most fixated on rock music from the 70’s and 80’s: Alan Parsons, The Moody Blues, Toto, Genesis, and Electric Light Orchestra. In my opinion the heavy keyboard usage of such bands really paved the way for new wave and the explosion of synth music.

One album that stood out to me was ELO’s Secret Messages. This record featured a number of slower/spacier songs and marked the end of the band’s most prolific period, being the tenth studio album in twelve years. The classical influences are present but in smaller doses, and it is musically art rock leaning towards pop rock. Synth elements from Time are less dominant and utilized to a different end; much more in line with progressive rock than a true synth-pop record. It is generally considered to be one of their weaker albums, following three of their most beloved: Out of the Blue (1977), Discovery (1979) and Time (1981). Jeff Lynne was forced to cut the album down to a single LP at the behest of his label, but the full 17 tracks were re-released together in 2018.

The singles “Four Little Diamonds” and “Stranger” have both been described by critics as Beatles-esque, which is not straightforwardly a compliment for music released in 1983. Despite some catchy harmonies and classic hooks, I thought these were poor choices to promote the record, especially considering what was cut from the original release. “Four Little Diamonds” in particular is derivative of not only the Beatles, but other ELO songs like “Don’t Bring Me Down.” As far as the original ten songs, the dreamy title track is most memorable, capturing the artsy, futuristic spirit of Lynne and ELO at their best. “Loser Gone Wild” and “Letter From Spain” are not as radio friendly but still a pair of well-crafted art pop songs, perhaps the closest this record gets to brooding.

Turning to the songs released on the 2018 version, there are some gems of art rock/pop songwriting: “Buildings Have Eyes” and “Hello My Old Friend,” as well as quirkier tracks like “No Way Out” and “Endless Lies.” Throughout you’ll hear garbled vocal samples, in keeping with the theme and Jeff Lynne’s penchant for secret messages. It’s only after listening in the order Lynne initially envisioned you get a better sense of flow.

The preceding record Time gets relatively high praise for inspiring Daft Punk and other electronic musicians. By contrast, Secret Messages received mixed reviews, with some identifying an over-reliance on “ELO formulas” and a more mechanized sound – maybe most conspicuous on “Rock ‘n’ Roll is King.” I would say that the album is less unified than its predecessor, lacking a time-travel concept, but stands as an important piece of history at the intersection of rock and electronic music. There’s plenty for a pop fan to love, but you can also see the genuine experimentation, progressive energy and vulnerability.

Rock music of this era was a huge influence on me as a musician, particularly at the progressive/keyboard-driven end. Secret Messages is also noteworthy as by 1983, many rock records lean much more heavily into synth-pop and new wave. Duran Duran, the Eurythmics, New Order, Spandau Ballet, and Tears for Fears were all in full swing at this point. With this profound musical transition going on around them, ELO stuck to their guns, while managing to innovate and even sound ahead of their time.

Standout tracks: “Secret Messages,” “Buildings Have Eyes,” “Hello My Old Friend”

Rating: 8/10


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