Jeff Lynne

Armchair Theatre

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Jeff Lynne could do no wrong in 1990...until he released a solo album, that is. Prior to Armchair Theatre, everything Lynne touched turned to gold and platinum. He coaxed a comeback out of George Harrison for Cloud Nine, helped Tom Petty go solo in 1989 with Full Moon Fever, then those two joined forces with Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison for the Traveling Wilburys, perhaps the only supergroup to ever live up to its billing (he also polished Orbison's swan song Mystery Girl). On each album, Lynne's production stamp was indelible: gigantic, shimmering tapestries of harmonized vocals and acoustic guitars underpinned by a bit of old-time rock & roll and dressed in a bunch of Beatlesque pop. This sound was his signature so it's no surprise that it's all over Armchair Theatre, but the record doesn't come close to matching the success of any of the aforementioned albums. That could be due to the shocking lack of pure pop here. Apart from the punchy "Every Little Thing" -- its title nods to the Beatles, its pre-chorus to Smokey Robinson but it sounds like neither of them -- and maybe the cheerful midtempo "Lift Me Up," there are no pop singles here; it's a surprisingly reflective record from a musician currently sitting on the top of the world. If anything, the album Armchair Theatre most resembles is its long-delayed sequel Long Wave, a sepia-toned collection of standards Lynne released in 2012. Lynne also dips into the past here, crooning versions of "September Song" and "Stormy Weather" that would have seamlessly fit onto Long Wave, then creates a joyful rockabilly pastiche on "Don't Let Go," easily the liveliest bit of rock & roll on the album. Elsewhere, a sense of nostalgia permeates the proceedings, not so much giving this a sense of sadness but rather a bit of comfortable, familiar warmth. Ultimately, that coziness didn't gain a large audience but it has aged well, as Armchair Theatre now doesn't seem part of Lynne's 1990 golden era but rather the unheralded start of his final act as pop maverick in repose, dabbling with the sounds he's loved from the past. [The 2013 reissue of Armchair Theatre adds two nice unreleased cuts: the faux folkie "Borderline" and the lightly Baroque "Forecast."]

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