I’ve been using the same toothpaste for the last 30 years. I’ve been showering the same way for as long as I can remember. I still enjoy the cereals of my childhood. I tie my shoes in the same order and with the same technique as I did when I was six. I am a creature of habit. Like all humans, I crave consistency and predictability. I like Jeff Lynne for the same reason I like Lebron James—both are the embodiment of certainty. When I shuffle through the Electric Light Orchestra catalogue, I know exactly what I’m getting. There are no surprises, and rarely ever any disappointments.
“Mission (A World Record)” is the title song off ELO’s seminal album and another Jeff Lynne masterpiece. The opening bars could easily be mistaken as something off Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The intro lyrics are eerily spoken to the accompaniment of synthesizer chords and a passing siren. Lynne takes on the persona of a visitor from outer space who is describing his observations of planet Earth. As the chorus approaches, one truly begins to question whether Jeff Lynne is of this world. The ensuing vocals are an amazing embodiment of the lyrics. Lynne belts out “Watching all the days roll by” with a sad desperation that crescendos at just the right moment. The haunting tone of the chorus reinforces the message—that time is an unforgiving beast which moves at constant pace. For the second line of the chorus, Lynne perfectly oscillates his voice to the lyric “Who are you and who am I?” It’s as if he’s been strapped to the tire of a big rig as it rolls down the pavement. And though it’s not clear why this undulating vocal is necessary, I can’t imagine the song without it. Not only does it seem to fit the lyrics like a glove, it’s the perfect complement to the orchestral strings and synthesizer notes. The bridge that follows the second chorus is driven by a funky baseline and a bluesy vocal. It provides a refreshing break in the song and marks an important turning point. The remainder of the song becomes increasingly chaotic both vocally and musically. The final iteration of the chorus is heavily distorted with a new rendition of the lyrics “How’s life on Earth?/What is it worth?”
Typically, the hallmark of truly great music is that the lyrics don’t matter. The words of any iconic song should be replaceable with minimal damage to the song itself. Undoubtedly, “Mission (A World Record)” is truly great music, although in this scenario, the lyrics are harder to abandon. The second line of the chorus, in particular, is extremely sensitive to change. Lynne’s voice is so tightly integrated into the musical value of this song (and the album as a whole), that it’s practically irreplaceable. A New World Record is an amazing feat of consistent greatness, something all human beings crave. And yet, the achievement is as much a mystery to Jeff Lynne as it is to us.
“The songs started to flow and most of them came quickly to me. To have all those hits, it was just…I mean amazing really. Going from doing okay for probably three or four years to suddenly being in the big time, it was a strange but great thing.”
A New World Record is Jeff Lynne’s right of passage into the ranks of that which is predictably satisfying. I know how Colgate and Cheerios will taste. My right shoe will always get tied before my left. If Lebron gets an open lane, you can count the basket. If Jeff Lynne writes a song, I know it will be good.
Photo Credit: Egghead06 (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons