Blinking Lights and Other Revelations
That's the unconscious statement I make on an any artist putting out a double album. Not that I am some punk-conservative that has a weird bias against excess, I am pro-excess and I vote. Its just that, no matter how poignant you are, no matter how much you might legitimately have to say, there is only so much anyone wants to hear in one stretch. And I am also of the conviction that the artist owes no obligation whatsoever toward the potential enjoyment of his/her art-product by any past or future audience, if you need to get your Proust on in album form, then put on another pot of coffee and get to it.
Mark Everett aka the eels aka 'E' as supposedly people have called him (I have my doubts anyone ever really called him 'E', but whatever) is one artist who has no issue with pushing out his personal demons in whatever form they need to take, throwing things like the attention span of an audience, or the believability of a public persona straight out the window he wants you to think he's about to jump from himself. And that's what I like about him. E is often a maudlin emotional dork and instead of trying to abstract it into a stab for Cool, he runs with it. His orchestral sense of indie-rock sounds both futuristic and dated at once, out of step with any trends going, and not in a revolutionary impenetrable avant-garde was, but it always works. His scratchy but tuneful voice only adds to the mild disjointedness of his lovable bummers. His albums Shootenanny and Electro-Shock Blues, notoriously dealing with the deaths of his mother and sister established his as an emotionally unstable genius, who balanced his self preservation on a razor edge of song. He was on the dead pool list of more than one grim hipster I know.
Fast forward two years since the devastatingly brilliant pop masterpiece Shootenanny and we find E maybe not happier, but in a more settled mood with the epic Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, close to an hour and a half of 33 songs slowly orbiting E's Jupiter. Here he doesn't have a "Saturday Morning" or a "Lone Wolf," that shines brightest, but a wash of the sometimes corny but always spot-on imagery posting his current state of mind up on the board.
One of many title tracks, 'Blinking Lights (For Me)" invokes both airplane and medical imagery over its delicate twinkling guitar and sweeping strings to show that he will be transformed, transported from sadness. The piano ballad "Suicide Life" he bemoans to his ghosts that he is "so tired of living the Suicide life/That ain't no reason to live" The sweet jangly "Railroad Man" states that on his journey "I knows I can walk along the tracks, it might take a little longer, but I can find my way back" Starting to get the picture? At first this album was starting to drain me. OK "E," get a move on. Stride on to that redemption already, I'll cover your shift if you aren't back in time, but just go already. But then I really did get it. E is not pretending to be a sojourner of the desert of Philosophy, bravely finding himself. He is being honest, talking about going but not going, the Beckettian struggle with destiny we all face. Here is where E is really brilliant, in highlighting the dull pressures that form the real strains of our lives. Sure the dramatic highs and lows make for easier songs, but it takes an honest man to admit his life is lived in the midrange, and make poetry from that.
There are some decidedly groovy moments like the low organs of "Mother Mary" before it it explodes in a moment of British Invasion holler at the chorus, and the after-school-special rock of "Goin Fetal" following it. There are also some of the tenderest pieces he's ever done, like the spare-for-him "Understanding Salesman" and the music-box daydream "Checkout Blues" (on many of these tracks he makes sensitive use of a string section, and on his website I noticed a tour ad for "Eels with Strings" so perhaps your local symphony will get to do something cooler that perform back-up to Linda Ronstadt to appease the season-ticket-holding blue hairs)
Toward the end of the first record, the instrumental rework of the theme "Blinking Lights (For You)" helps to bring this thing full circle. He knows his hopes and fears and anxieties and little stabs at happiness mirror those in which we all participate. One is likely to say here, then why not stop. You made your point, but then the light goes on that he's not telling you all this, he's telling himself. The rocker (though the thing separating his rockers from his ballads often is just the volume of the drums) "Old Shit/New Shit" seems an apt sentiment to put toward the front of the second CD, with its singing saws and rave-up alternative wall of guitars. "Bride of Theme from Blinking Lights" sets the oft repeated melody to accordion and celesta, pushing you into the mock-good-time-rock joy of "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)" only to descend into the strummed moper "I'm Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart." This triptych, this play-within-the play, is the core of this wormy apple. It temporarily falls into the manic-depressive trap of believing the world is rainbows and puppies when you are up, and that its an endless swamp of self-generated misery when you are down, with the restatement of the theme holding it all together.
Two more great little songs on here merit mention: The syncopated beatbox and E's singing just a little further up the register make "Sweet Lil Thing" one of the, well, sweetest songs in his catalog. And the guitar and strings "Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?" bears an indictment of the affected specialness we attempt, while acknowledging that we don't even keep up with those who do manage to make a mark:
Lunch box collector loves all the Pussycats
But when he goes to bed, he wonders where he's at
Thrift store shirts and old haircuts
Living in an old sitcom
Whatever happened to Soy Bomb?
Its not the kind of revelation we want. We want a big sky to open, designating us a unique and beautiful snowflake, but those are the revelations that only happen in movies and rock lyrics. The real revelations for us who weren't born figuring this out is that the triumph of life is not to be a household name, to live on in the annals of history, but just to live, and that is the blinking light on this album.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or