Cloud Nine

George Harrison

Dark Horse, 1987

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In the realm of film there’s something called the Snyderverse, a collection of superhero movies carrying the distinctive visual and stylistic stamp of director Zack Snyder. In the realm of late-’80s/early-’90s rock, there’s an equivalent phenomenon that one could choose to call—if one were sufficiently impervious to the judgment of others—the Lynne-iverse, albums produced by and featuring the distinctive sonic and stylistic stamp of Jeff Lynne.

Lynne, the erstwhile frontman/songwriter/maestro of the Electric Light Orchestra, put that group on ice in 1986 in favor of a new focus on producing other artists. His sonic trademark is shimmering, resonant acoustic rhythm guitars complemented by layered harmonies, set within a burnished late-Beatles haze; a few years later the notorious Fab Four fanatic would be recruited by the three surviving members to produce the sessions that generated “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” for The Beatles Anthology.

A run of producer credits for Lynne that would grow to include parts of Roy Orbison’s final album Mystery Girl and all of Tom Petty’s solo debut Full Moon Fever, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and 3, and Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Into The Great Wide Open, among others, kicked off when George Harrison sought him out to produce the new solo album that would become Cloud Nine.

In the mid-’80s, the “quiet Beatle” appeared to be taking his nickname rather too literally, languishing in a mid-career lull that saw him go quiet for five years following 1982’s poorly received Gone Troppo. In need of a comeback—a funny concept for someone who sold roughly a zillion records in his first band and launched his solo career with a triple album that topped the charts—Harrison sought out Lynne to add polish and focus to his next record.

Along with Lynne, Harrison recruited a gaggle of familiar faces to add parts to several tracks, including best frenemy Eric Clapton on guitar, Elton John and Gary Wright on keys, and both session great Jim Keltner and Ringo himself on drums. The resulting album soared in the charts on the strength of #1 hit single “Got My Mind Set On You” and the reality that Cloud Nine was pretty clearly Harrison’s strongest solo album since 1970’s epic All Things Must Pass.

That said, this is an uneven disc that spotlights both Harrison’s strengths and some of his weaknesses as a solo artist. The title track turns out to be a somewhat puzzling choice to open the album, a mid-tempo blues with Clapton featured on guitar. Lynne tries to spice it up with horns, and Clapton’s playing is sublime, but this particular example of Harrison’s trademark mystical/spiritual tunes feels more dour than transcendent. The mood brightens with the Harrison-Lynne-Wright co-write “That’s What It Takes,” featuring a bed of Lynne’s trademark acoustic rhythm guitar paired with one of his jangly electric leads, topped with Harrison’s trademark weepy soloing. “Fish On The Sand” is better yet, offering some real drive on an upbeat love song whose overall vibe has a distinct Traveling Wilburys feel (as well it should). Too bad the album’s momentum falls off a cliff a moment later with the dreary, forgettable piano ballad “Just For Today.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

After that unfortunate interlude, things pick up again with the very strong Harrison-Lynne co-write “This Is Love,” featuring a sinuous descending guitar hook over a steady shuffle beat. As is true throughout the album, some of the synth tones and production elements feel a little dated to modern ears, but overall this is one of the better tunes here, with Lynne even slipping in one of his favorite vocal arrangement tricks, answering back the title refrain in response to Harrison. Next up, Harrison pays homage to his roots with the clever “When We Was Fab,” an affectionate look back that brims with nod after sonic and lyrical nod to the Beatles.

Side Two of the vinyl edition opened with “Devil’s Radio,” a bluesy rave-up / takedown of gossip-mongers, the acid-tongued yang to the sweet yin of “When We Was Fab.” It’s alright, but can feel rather pedestrian other than Elton John’s always-melodic piano. Both Elton and Clapton feature on "Wreck Of The Hesperus," helping give it a nice bounce; if only it wasn’t sandwiched between two more momentum-killing ballads. “Someplace Else” is sleepy and bland, though an easier listen than “Breath Away From Heaven,” which features cheesy ’80s synths playing a vaguely Far Eastern melody at a ponderous cadence.

The biggest puzzle about this album is how they ended up slotting “Got My Mind Set On You” last; it’s a no-brainer first single, a giddy romp that’s easily the catchiest thing on the album. I can only speculate that Harrison may have needed some convincing to include it at all, given that it’s the only cover, and a fairly obscure one at that, written by Rudy Clark (“Good Lovin’”) for James Ray way back in 1962. Harrison’s raved-up version features hook upon hook that carried the single all the way to #1, strapping rocket boosters to the album from which it was taken.

In the midst of Cloud Nine’s successful chart run, Dark Horse distributor Warner Brothers asked Harrison at the last minute to provide a B-side for the European release of the album’s third single “This Is Love.” With no time to spare, Harrison and Lynne talked strategy over dinner with Roy Orbison, who Lynne was by then working on tracks with for Mystery Girl. They ended up calling Bob Dylan to ask if they could record at his nearby home studio, and inviting Orbison along to the session. The next day, in search of a specific guitar sound, Lynne and company called up Dylan’s neighbor Tom Petty, who arrived with the needed gear. A few hours later the five men had a track in the can (“Handle With Care”) that the suits at Warner recognized was much too good to burn off as a B-side, and the Traveling Wilburys were born.

Cloud Nine’s success proved to be a significant turning point for both Harrison and Lynne. The acclaim it won drew Harrison back from the realm of film producing and led to several live appearances, two Wilburys albums, and The Beatles Anthology. At the same time, the album firmly established Lynne as a go-to producer for acts interested in setting their songs within his very specific sonic universe. Cloud Nine isn’t a great album—it’s too uneven and burdened with ’80s production flourishes for that—but it’s solidly good, and undeniably important.

Rating: B

User Rating: B+



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