Jeff Lynne - Armchair Theatre
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In the summer of 1990, Jeff Lynne could look back on the achievements of the last few years with pride. The last three albums he’d produced—George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl—were not only big hits, but also sonic and cosmetic makeovers for the artists. He peaked with his work on the first Traveling Wilburys album, on which Lynne, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison pretended to be brothers in a family of exceptional genes. Who knew that Harrison could be compellingly reflective again? Who expected Dylan to be vulgar? Who on earth allowed Tom Petty to harmonize with Roy Orbison?
Lynne wasn’t a resourceful producer; his trick was to update his clients’ music by cheerfully reassuring their classicist impulses. Often this music was the aural equivalent of Lynne’s sartorial splendor: paisley, big sunglasses, and permed hair. This meant a gazillion overdubbed harmony vocals and spacey keyboards. Since the bango production aesthetic of the mid-80s was not kind to the artists cited above (even Lynne acolyte David Stewart interred Tom Petty behind syndrums and sitars), Lynne’s style was a palliative, a slap on the back to aging men who wanted to look hot on MTV next to Johnny Hates Jazz while staying True To Themselves (it helped that Johnny Hates Jazz also used spacey keyboards, but don’t tell Bob Dylan that).
Alas, Armchair Theatre, Lynne’s 1990 solo album, just proved how adept a mockingbird Lynne was, his mimicry compelling insofar as you overlooked the uncertain burr and blank falsetto emitting from beneath the luxuriant plumage. The best moments sound like Harrison and Petty outtakes without their vocal stamp. On the first single and sort-of hit “Every Little Thing” Lynne blows his wad before you’ve heard the second song: choired vocals, beefy saxophones just because he can, a battalion of fiercely strummed acoustic guitars keeping the damn thing afloat through surprising chord changes. It’s not so much a song as a sound collage, generations of pop music tropes, musical and lyrical, flashing in milliseconds.
The rest of the album is less exhausting, less rewarding. Only “Lift Me Up,” with its piercing guest solo by Harrison, ascends to an empyrean untrammeled by wearers of paisley vests, or undisturbed by the echo from the predictably unpredictable covers of “September Song” and “Stormy Weather.” Lynne’s next superstar production, Tom Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open, fit a straitjacket around the increasing flabbiness of Petty’s songwriting; and his work on Paul McCartney’s Flaming Pie—“he’s more like George’s man,” Macca had once sniffed—proved definitively that it’s an abomination when fetishists as amiably insensitive as these two exhume the Beatles corpse to do all sorts of unmentionables to it. Armchair Theatre, an uninteresting hand job, is an album by a man more bearable when ordering around artists with talents as uncertain as his than when he’s called upon to project his own.