Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Eels-- Blinking Lights and Other Revelations

The new album from Mark Oliver Everett—who performs this two-disc set under the banner of The Eels—is titled Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Really, though, there’s mostly just one big revelation, which is repeated throughout the album with subtle variations: Life really blows. And, chances are, it’s gonna get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

With song titles like “Suicide Life,” “God’s Silence,” and “Losing Streak,” it’s no surprise that this collection is a major downer. But don’t right it off just for being sad; I’ve made that mistake on more than one occasion in the past, only to discover that many albums that I initially dubbed as too depressing—Beck’s Sea Change and Patty Griffin’s Impossible Dream, to name just two—are in fact highly rewarding in spite of their bleakness. This set from Everett is much the same; listening to his lamentations can lead us to surprising catharsis, and even to increased empathy.

Then again, with thirty-three songs and over 90 minutes of music, this is one hefty chunk of sorrow. For many listeners, it may be a bit too much to take in one sitting. And perhaps that’s why Everett made this set a double-discer; though the whole collection may be overwhelming, Everett packs his songs with enough poignant humor and surprising stylistic shifts to make each individual disc a very manageable slice of sadness and angst.

There are even a few moments of genuine joy. (Okay, a very few moments of genuine joy.) This song cycle is a rough chronicle of Everett’s life thus far, starting with his very first day on the planet; “From Which I Came/A Magic World” celebrates our hero’s day of birth with glee, declaring that “every moment’s built to last/ when you’re living without a past.” And that’s when things begin to go downhill; in the next song, our narrator discovers the ugly truth that he is, quite literally, the “Son of a Bitch.”

Everett has cooked up some absolutely delicious pop delicacies in his day, and Blinking Lights boasts some of his tastiest concoctions yet. “Trouble with Dreams” begins with what sounds like a ticking clock before erupting into a relentless dance beat and culminating in a rowdy drums-and-organ stomp. According to Everett, a dream is not always a good thing. Sometimes dreaming is just selfish ambition: “Trouble with dreams is you never know/ When to hold on and when to let go.”

It’s vintage Eels from start to finish, and it gets this critic’s vote for the album’s best song, but, with all of Everett’s genre-hopping, that’s a pretty tough call to make. Not all of these songs fit under the indie-pop label: “Railroad Man” is a warm country-western number, colored with brilliant steel guitar and mourning the loss of a simpler way of life; “Son of a Bitch” is an elegant jazz ballad, right down to the saxophones; many of these songs are stately, pathos-laden ballads, wrapped up in a hazy sonic gauze.

More than anything, though, it seems like Everett’s goal is to start the next big dance craze. Forget the Macarena; “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” is an infectious faux-rave sing-along, with lyrics that are either the most cynical or the most optimistic on the album (that’s for the listener to decide). The most irresistible number, though, is “Going Fetal,” a loopy dance number built around a Tom Waits vocal sample. The lyrics express—with no small amount of irony—the ultimate inadequacy of escapism:

Everyone is going fetal
If you feel like your fate is sealed
Then just get down and curl on up
Just like a little helpless pup

Everett further sweetens the deal with a couple of guest appearances on Disc 2. REM’s own Peter Buck—perhaps trying to atone for the colossal disappointment that was his band’s last record—contributes his songwriting and guitar skills to the ironic “To Lick Your Boots,” and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian gets a co-author credit for “Dusk: A Peach in the Orchard.”

In the end, though, even these stylistic shifts and surprise guest performers can’t save the album from being a little overlong and overambitious. The second disc, especially, suffers from too many ballads, and many of the album’s brief, ethereal instrumental numbers seem superfluous. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that, after an hour and a half of mostly non-stop sorrow, Blinking Lights can grow tedious, to say the least. But this isn’t just gloom; it’s beautiful gloom, and the fact that Everett can find such beauty and creativity in the fact of depression and lost love… well, let’s just chalk this one up as another example of all things working together for the good.

(Originally posted by Josh Hurst at Reveal.)


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