Somewhere in Time is the band's first studio effort following the extensive World Slavery Tour of 1984-85, which was physically draining for the group, lasting 331 days and comprising 187 concerts. The resulting exhaustion is credited as the main factor in the complete lack of songwriting contributions from lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson, whose material was rejected by the rest of the band. Dickinson had written several "acoustic-based" songs, explaining that "I felt we had to come up with our Physical Graffiti or Led Zeppelin IV ... we had to get it onto another level or we'd stagnate and drift away," although bassist and primary writer Steve Harris "thought he'd lost the plot completely," surmising that "he was probably more burnt out than anyone at the end of that last tour." On the other hand, the record is also notable for the number of "fully formed" songs written by guitarist Adrian Smith, who wrote both of the album's singles: "Wasted Years" and "Stranger in a Strange Land", the former of which is the only song on the record not to feature synthesisers.
Following the World Slavery Tour, the group were given four months to recuperate, with Harris, Smith and guitarist Dave Murray spending the time experimenting with new equipment. The result was a marked change in sound for Iron Maiden, as it was their first to use guitar synthesisers, although on their next release, 1988's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, the effects were provided by keyboards instead. Given their time off, this was their first studio album not to be released a year after their previous one, the band insisting that they have more time "to get it right without hurrying for a change," comments Harris. It was also one of their most expensive records, with the bass and drums recorded in the Bahamas, the guitars and vocals recorded in The Netherlands and the mixing taking place in New York.
Although "space and time" are common themes throughout the release, with songs such as "Wasted Years", "Caught Somewhere in Time", "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Deja-Vu", the band never intended for it to be a concept album, with Harris stating, "We certainly never went in there and said, 'Right let's write a load of songs on the subject of time.'" While the majority of the release's songs have disappeared from the band's live shows shortly after its supporting tour, "Wasted Years" and "Heaven Can Wait" have often been played since. Performances of "Heaven Can Wait" have featured groups of local fans and celebrities invited onstage to sing along during the song's middle section.
The cover for Somewhere in Time, created by the band's then regular artist Derek Riggs, displays a cyborg-enhanced Eddie in a futuristic, Blade Runner-inspired environment. Much like the cover of Powerslave, the wraparound album cover holds a plethora of references to earlier Iron Maiden albums and songs, such as:
The street sign on the corner where Eddie is standing reads Acacia (partially obscured), a reference to the song "22 Acacia Avenue" from The Number of the Beast (1982).
A banner with the words "This is a very boring painting" is displayed backwards within the lobby of the Bradbury Towers Hotels International. This can be seen to the left of Eddie's right leg.
In the very centre, just above the "Department" sign and behind the cable going to the cyborg's weapon, there is a small vertical phrase in red neon, which reads "Меня Рвёт" [Menya Rvyot], Russian for "I'm vomiting" — or more literally, "it's tearing me up", depending on the context.
A character wearing a large cloak stands above the walkway's right side, which Riggs claims is Batman.
Above and slightly to the right of the cloaked character reads more Hebrew lettering, "ג'ין" (Gin, in English).
On the right side of the walkway and just above the "Latest Results" sign is the bracket that holds Eddie's skull together from the Piece of Mind album onwards, which Riggs drew as a cartouche.
In the bottom right hand corner all five members of the band are standing in a line. Dickinson is holding a brain, a reference to Piece of Mind, and drummer Nicko McBrain is wearing aviator goggles (he had a pilot's license by this time, long before Dickinson) and a T-shirt that says "Iron What?". According to Riggs, the band complained because the pictures of themselves were not accurate enough.
To the right of "Long Beach Arena" is a sign which reads "Hammerjacks", a night club and concert hall in Baltimore frequented by the band.
Below Hammerjacks is a sign that reads "Tehe's Bar", which is where the choir vocals in the middle of "Heaven Can Wait" were recorded.
To the left of the clock is a sign that reads "Herbert Ails", a reference to the author Frank Herbert who wrote the book, "Dune," upon which the Iron Maiden song, "To Tame a Land", is based. Herbert had also died that same year, explaining the word "Ails". The reference also refers to the unfriendly response the band received from Herbert (via his agent) regarding permission to use "Dune" as the song's title.
Beneath the Phantom Opera House sign, there is a sign that reads "EMI REC.". All of the band's albums, outside North America, have been released by EMI Records.