James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

21st Century Man


By Electric Light Orchestra 

22 Sep, 2022

Special Requests


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Electric Light Orchestras 1981 Time is a science fiction concept album. To quote Wikipedia, a concept album is an album whose tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually.” 

In the case of Time, that concept is time travel, or rather its impact on a person from the year 1981, as imagined by creator Jeff Lynne. 

Snatched from 1981, the protagonist finds himself in 2095. 2095 is in many ways similar to 1981 (worker dissatisfaction persists, for example), but technological change presents the protagonist with novelties that might well astound and delight them … if the agency that snagged the protagonist out of time had not left the love of the protagonist’s life back in 1981. Even granting a lifespan of fifty or sixty years, anyone who was an adult in 1981 would be long dead by 2095; to remain in 2095 is to lose one’s love forever.

To be just a little negative, the protagonist undermines the sincerity of his affection by unsuccessfully hitting on a robot woman of 2095. Also, because the album never provides the love interest’s perspective, while the degree of obsession is clear, the listener cannot be certain whether reciprocity of affection plays any role in the relationship with the person back in 1981

While I am being negative, although this album is less than an hour long, there were one or two moments where I wondered if a particular track (Another Heart Breaks in particular) was necessary to the final vision. 

The music leans synth pop, just on the edge of my preferences. For me, the experience was a pleasant exercise in nostalgia, no mean feat given that I never knowingly listened to ELO back when (not because I avoided them but merely because CBC Radio didn’t play their music). That said, I was astounded to discover that Hold on Tight was ELO and not, as I’ve apparently been assuming since 1981, Roy Orbison. 

The verse

Remember the good old 1980s?
When things were so uncomplicated?
I wish I could go back there again
And everything could be the same.

sure plays differently in 2022 than it must have back in 1981. Ah, to return to the carefree days of soaring inflation, escalating Gini Coefficients, spiraling NATO/Russian tensions, demagogic Republicans, and unchecked pandemics. 

I was reminded a bit of the Moody Blues and in places of Roy Orbison. Not surprising, since musicians influence each other. What did surprise me, coming to the album in a state of total ignorance as I did, was the resonance with an obscure Poul Anderson story whose title I am utterly unable to recall in which cold sleep provides a modern man with a one-way ticket to a utopia for which he is profoundly ill-suited. Presumably this similarity is entirely coincidental. However, in the Anderson the issue was social maladjustment, whereas here it’s the protagonist’s unshakable obsession over a person long lost to them, a person with whom they might never have had a relationship, that ruins everything. 

Time is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK) and here (Barnes & Noble) but I did not find Time at either Book Depository or Chapters-Indigo. Presumably, there are music-focused sources to which I should have turned but oh well.

In detail:


An unknown agency probes the past for a suitable subject.


Daydreams provide a suitable frame of mind for temporal retrieval.

Yours Truly, 2095

The protagonist is surrounded by futuristic wonders he cannot appreciate, because he pines for a person left back in 1981. Also, the robot women of the future (or at least one of them) are unreceptive to the protagonist’s charms. Perhaps this is because the robot woman in question is quite aware of the protagonist’s obsession with his lost love. The dismissive terms in which the protagonist describes the robot woman might also have something to do with it.

Points to the protagonist for deciding to leave the robot woman alone, but points deducted for making it clear that this could change if it appears that the protagonist has a chance with the robot woman. 

Ticket To the Moon

The protagonist has a ticket to the Moon but can think only of his lost love.

The Way Life’s Meant to Be

The world has changed in ways that may be marvelous, but the singer feels alienated and misses the person with whom they are smitten.

Interestingly, the protagonist mentions feeling shame when they see the world of 2095 but it’s not entirely clear why. 

Another Heart Breaks

This is an almost parodic romantic obsession song, consisting entirely of the title phrase repeated over and over.

Rain Is Falling

A sudden rainfall provides a suitable backdrop for the protagonist’s romantic melancholy.

From The End of The World

A sudden swerve from sadness to anger over the fact the subject of the protagonist’s obsession never responds to the protagonist’s messages.

It’s not clear at all that the messages are getting though but it is clear there could be reasons why the subject might choose not to respond. 

The Lights Go Down

Despite a passing acknowledgement of possible error on his part, the protagonist still circles back to obsession. 

Here Is the News

Snippets of news broadcasts, which show that while the specifics may be novel, the issues involved are not. 

21st Century Man

The wonders of tomorrow are as nothing in the face of crushing depression. 

Hold On Tight

When reality fails to comfort, hold ever tighter to one’s dreams. 


2095 delivers many marvels but a ticket home does not appear to be among them.