Quick, who were the five members of that adorable, top-selling 1988 supergroup the Traveling Wilburys? Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, the late Roy Orbison – and Jeff Lynne. Jeff who? That seems to be how Lynne is best remembered these days. He’s the Wilbury nobody knows about. But Lynne produced the Wilburys. He also produced top-selling albums for Harrison, Petty, and Orbison. And for years he was singer and rhythm guitarist for Electric Light Orchestra. Maybe the surprise here isn’t that the public doesn’t recognize his name, but that Lynne took so long to make a solo album of his own.
The record starts with a surefire pop-rock hit, ”Every Little Thing.” This irresistible tune has nearly everything: melody, driving rhythm, seductive harmony, and, as garnish for the rest, a wealth of background detail, including playful ’60s Memphis-style horns. But there are two niceties it doesn’t have. One is a sophisticated lyric: ”Tell me every little thing that makes you happy,” Lynne bubbles. The other, sadly, is singing equal to the sparkle of the song. Lynne is a routine vocalist, experienced but gray, even when he breaks into what ought to be an abandoned falsetto.
What’s true of the song is true of the album. On Armchair Theatre, Lynne hops from rockabilly (in ”Don’t Let Go,” a Roy Hamilton oldie from 1958) to such smoky standards as ”Stormy Weather” and ”September Song.” It’s his producing that draws attention, such as turning ”September Song” into a ’50s-style hybrid of Broadway and early rock & roll, building its rhythm from snare-heavy drums that he plays himself.
Among Lynne’s own songs is ”Save Me Now,” a folk throwaway with an environmental theme, supposedly sung by our beleaguered (and evidently witless) Earth: ”Remember all those trees I had? Now there ain’t a lot.” But mostly Lynne writes solid, mainstream ballads about love, which intriguingly evoke several eras of rock history. His production details are astounding. A bass line unexpectedly churns in ”Lift Me Up”; ”Now You’re Gone” is powerfully spiced with pattering Indian drums, the drone of Indian voices (Ravi Shankar’s singers, in fact), and a tangy Indian violin.
Always, though, it would be better if someone else sang – and at times the music suggests who that someone should be. ”Blown Away” was written with Tom Petty, and it has exactly the kind of arching melody that makes Petty’s voice wail in ways Lynne’s can’t. ”Don’t Say Goodbye,” a pop-rock ballad in early-’ 60s style, first needs Roy Orbison and then demands Elvis, whose style Lynne unerringly mimics. Mimicry can’t help the song, though; it only calls attention to vocal needs that aren’t met. ”Armchair Theatre” is good fun, but in the end it’s mainly a producer’s triumph, music for music’s sake, with barely a hint of the meaning good lyrics can convey, or the warmth that can come from fine singing.