Disco? Very. 1979 was the year when Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra embraced the smooth, slick sounds of disco that dominated the charts at the time, making one of the most noticeable changes of direction they’d embarked on for a while. Although commercially successful (it stayed at number one in the album charts for five weeks), a large proportion of ELO fans were rather unimpressed by Jeff’s follow-up to the magnificent “Out Of The Blue” and, to many, was a step in the wrong direction. The fact that violinist Mik Kaminski and cellists Hugh McDowell and Melvyn Gale do not appear on the album (and were subsequently dismissed for being surplus to requirements after the promo videos for the album were made) is indicative that Lynne wanted to dramatically change things. Still, in terms of sales and popularity, Lynne’s band were still riding high and the collection of radio-friendly pop songs, “Discovery”, contains many tracks that would be considered stalwarts of ELO greatest hits compilations. Whether you believe that this album measures up to any of the band’s other albums made during their most commercially successful era is simply a matter of taste.
The stomping disco vibes of “Shine A Little Love” provide a classy start to the album and the joyful, uplifting “Confusion” is one of the instant highlights, resplendent with dramatic kettle drum fills. The longing, tender “Need Her Love” is a rather lovely song, although I’m really not sure about the wince-inducing line “she tries to sing”, and “The Diary Of Horace Wimp” is a flamboyant slice of excellent songwriting, arguably marred by the rather excessive Vocoder use, that boasts a beautifully Beatlesque ending. “Last Train To London” is a superb song with both an irresistible bassline and an infectious chorus and is probably Jeff’s best disco-inspired composition. “Midnight Blue” is utterly gorgeous, although I’d have much preferred it with the kind of instrumentation and arrangement it would have received on, for example, “A New World Record”, rather than being so synthesiser-heavy. The high energy “On The Run”, with its bouncy, catchy melody could easily have been a single whereas “Wishing”, a perfectly likeable but ordinary offering, is probably the only track which really couldn’t have been. The album finishes with the monster hit, “Don’t Bring Me Down”, a bass-heavy track with a thumping beat and memorable chorus. From a compositional point of view, it’s a simplistic, rather formulaic track, but Jeff proves once again his knack of transforming it into something that sounds so much more accomplished.
“Discovery” leaves me conflicted more than any other album in the Electric Light Orchestra catalogue. Conflicted because, although I really like and enjoy every song on the record and there are some undeniably brilliant tracks, there’s something about the whole project that doesn’t quite match up to much of Jeff’s previous work. It is a hugely commercial collection of songs and nearly every song a potential single, but if you compare it with the most ambitious and grandiose moments of “Out Of The Blue”, the polished pop sheen of “Discovery” with the contemporary soul/disco influences Jeff incorporated into the style of the music feels a little superficial, in comparison. It is, therefore, almost annoying that the songs are this good; it’s very difficult to seriously criticise a meticulously crafted, thoroughly enjoyable album where over half of the tracks were hit singles. Regardless of the obviously quality and commercial appeal of “Discovery”, it remains one of the very few ELO albums I hardly listen to. If I’m completely honest, as an entire album it leaves me a little cold and even the most emotionally engaging songs on the album (“Confusion”, “Need Her Love”, “Midnight Blue”) struggle to touch the heartstrings through the synthesisers and pop sheen. Although this is an exceedingly listenable record, this really isn’t the Electric Light Orchestra I fell in love with and, as catchy as much of this material is, it will never be one of my favourite ELO releases. A great cover of Del Shannon’s “Little Town Flirt” as a bonus track on the 2001 remastered version sweetens the deal a little, however.