According to Mark “E” Everett, there are two kinds of Christmas people: those who like their lights to stay solid, and those who like them to blink at random. Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, the new album from Everett’s Eels, is a celebration of these small moments that give our lives meaning. An autobiographical 33-song masterpiece spread out over two discs, it’s all so well put together that it even unfolds in chronological order. You can feel the care and commitment that has gone into making this album a reality. Does anyone even bother to make ambitious albums like this anymore? Well, to answer my own question, not really; that’s what makes this one so special.
Inspired by the car trip in the Bergman film Wild Strawberries, Blinking Lights took seven years to complete and is meant as a reflection of E’s entire life up to this point, which has seen more than its fair share of tragedy. His sister’s 1996 suicide (which he so effectively chronicled on Eels’ second album, Electro-shock Blues) followed by his mother’s death from cancer soon afterward weigh heavily on Blinking Lights…, as does growing up in the shadow of his abusive father’s alcoholism and the death of his cousin on 9/11, who was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Feelings of alienation, America’s cultural decline and the existence of God are also dealt with in a reflective tone that rings a sort of existential beauty out of even the most heartbreaking situations. What we have here is man who has seen a lot and been through too much, yet still believes that there has got to be a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Disc one mostly covers E’s arrival into this world, his childhood and his relationship with his parents, which seems to have been strained from the get-go. “Mother couldn’t love me/ but that didn’t stop me from liking her/ she was my mom/ and I was no son-of-a-bitch,” he sings matter-of-factly on “Son of a Bitch”. Of his father, he adds further: “Daddy was a drunk, a most unpleasant man/ the wrong look his way, well that could really wreck his day/ and believe me when I say, it would wreck your day too.” It’s chilling stuff to listen to, and E succeeds at giving the listener the song’s point of view as seen through the eyes of himself as a child. Musically, he’s covering a lot of ground and he effectively uses everything from folk and rock to jazz and country to paint a vivid picture of the defining moments from his childhood and adolescence.
“Dust of Ages” kicks off disc two with its opening line; “This is the day that I give myself up cold / The dust of ages settles on your days, and so you shake your coat off and get on your way.” It’s the manifesto of a man determined to start again. A man who finds life overwhelming, yet still retains the ability to want to try and get the most out of it. The second disc seems to flow a little better than the first, perhaps because recalling and then giving voice to his childhood was bound to be more jagged and painful. Both discs successfully use short instrumental pieces to give the listener time to pause and reflect, although at times, as on the aptly titled “God’s Silence”, which utilizes a simple, minimalist melody that’s reminiscent of Aaron Copland, the absence of words seems to speak volumes.
There are some really affecting and simply beautiful piano and voice tracks like “Ugly Love” and “The Stars Shine in the Sky Tonight” peppered throughout disc two that continue E’s uncanny knack for taking depressing subject matter and somehow making it all feel uplifting. It’s perhaps his greatest gift as a songwriter, and I can relate to his songs in a way that I can’t with most other musicians. It’s a kind of a white soul music, similar in feel to what Brian Wilson did with Pet Sounds, which, with it’s themes of troubled childhood and isolation set to very private music, could be the proud parent of Blinking Lights….
I love the album. I don’t really know what else to say, other than when I listen to it I feel it in the very core of my being. E is one of the best songwriters America has to offer, and he has made as personal, poignant, and ultimately redeeming an album that you are ever going to hear. That he has persevered and finished this album so that we could listen to it is a miracle in itself. Frequently funny without being flippant, Blinking Lights… greatest asset is how it deals with life’s big questions amid personal misfortune yet remains devoid of self-pity or morbidity. Tom Waits, a huge Eels fan, guests on the album, as does Peter Buck and John Sebastian of Lovin’ Spoonful fame, but you hardly notice them, which is perhaps the greatest compliment I could give them.
E’s fascination with the blinking lights of his childhood Christmas tree serves as a deeper metaphor for how we experience life itself. That, in the end, what we all have are these little, great moments that come and go. That’s seemingly as good as it gets. But still, isn’t that great? That he considers himself “a very lucky man”, as he sings on the closing track to Blinking Lights, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know”, the answer to that is without a doubt a resounding yes.