Personal heartache and loss seem to be in the news a lot this week, and all of the world knows why. New Yorkers need no reminder, yet some music can’t seem to help but recall moments of heartache. The best music rises above and creates beauty, like the Eels masterpiece Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.
Knowing the behind-the-scenes stories of artists can at times strip away what makes the art special. Blinking Lights and Other Revelations needs no illumination, yet knowing what went into it makes it all the more profound. Having lost his sister to suicide and his mother to cancer a week apart in 1996, E (real name Mark Oliver Everett) turned to music and began crafting some of the gems that grace this album.
This double disk release was a long time coming, and during the creation phase, E — who is the beginning and end of the band — faced another tragedy. His cousin was aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Devastated, E tossed himself into music, throwing out odd lo-fi pop-rock releases with reckless abandon. Most were well received by critics and fans, but behind the scenes, he kept carefully working on his opus.
In 2005, the album was ready for daylight, and in the post that accompanied its release on the official website, E flat out stated what the album was about:
"God and all the questions related to the subject of God. It's also about hanging on to my remaining shreds of sanity and the blue sky that comes the day after a terrible storm, and it's a love letter to life itself, in all its beautiful, horrible glory."
While the emotions were real and the hurt deep, it would mean nothing if the music didn’t have the power. Thankfully, the songs run the gamut and engage listeners throughout the album. There are instrumentals setting the tone with “Theme for a Pretty Girl that Makes You Believe God Exists,” honest weepers like “I'm Going to Stop Pretending that I Didn't Break Your Heart,” and somehow-against-all-odd's winners like “Blinking Lights (For Me).”
“Trouble With Dreams” has an eerie piano plinking during its haunting verse structure before breaking into a gloriously uplifting chorus where he reaches out for help with his “big dreams.” Schizophrenic maybe, but these are the types of songs that worm into ears on late quiet nights, and the multiple organ/harpsichord/tape loop outro makes it feel like it was all a dream.
The twinkling of a piano takes “Marie Floating Over the Backyard” and pairs it with a vocal ooh that haunts, while “In the Yard, Behind the Church” paints a simple scene, placing the listener and lover via a drum beat and warbling chorus in a holy local before delivering them to heaven.
There are upbeat moments that shine bright as dawn, as in the inspirational purity of “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” and “Lick Your Boots,” which could easily be mistaken for a vibrantly shining Beck outtake. Instead, it finds Pete Buck from R.E.M helping out. Tom Waits also shows up yelping and growling on the swinging “Going Fetal,” trying to get the new dance crazy started.
There are also timeless ditties that show just how talented the Eels can be regardless of loss or hurt. One such case is “Railroad Man,” which sounds like it was written in 1853. So simple, so straight ahead, and chugging along like a steam engine — it is intoxicating in between bouts of raw honesty.
That rawness is everywhere, directly addressing his lost cousin in “Ugly Love.” “Last Time We Spoke” lays heartbreak out sparsely, while “Suicide Life” majestically deals with a topic E is all too familiar with. The most staggering of these is the disk closing, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know,” as E pours his life into an epic song that somehow manages to tie up this grand experiment of grappling with life, reality, and loss via spot-on honesty. His heart is in the right place — this we now know.
Blinking Lights and Other Revelations isn’t perfect. E’s voice can at times fall into such a heavy state of depression or at least blase that it dulls the overall impact of the song. There are probably a few too many instrumentals here as well, and double albums in popular music aren't usually the best idea. However, over the course of both disks, there is very little that feels like filler.
Life is messy. Pain is universal, but how we deal with it is personal. E has wrapped his personal world into this album and has come out on the other side. He's continued to do what he loves, releasing three albums since this. Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is a work art stemming from pain and longing. It digs into the soul as its tracks unfold, in all their beautiful, horrible glory.
To preview some great tracks from the Eels epic, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, click the links below:
Please note: online audio tracks are an excellent source for previewing, but are compressed and do not match CD quality audio.