Blinking Lights and Other Revelations
t makes sense that a man who’s spent so much of his output dealing with the subject of death should experience a career resurrection when he turns his mind to religion.
Eels came through in 1996 (back when they were a band, not a man) with the album Beautiful Freak, and promptly fell headfirst into interesting times. It came out in America 12 days after the launch of MTV2, two months after the release of Odelay, and a month before Pinkerton hit the shops. These were salad days for alternative rock, and anyone who was slightly “alternative,” had a modicum of ability to “rock,” and, most importantly, had that radio-friendly crossover sound was welcome with open arms by the major labels. DreamWorks, in this case.
And so they became unlikely successes. “Susan’s House” and “Novocaine for the Soul” were both top 10 seconds, with the none-more-90s promo for the latter being bound for the reload on the majority of music video stations, and they even beat off Hanson, No Doubt, Daft Punk, and Erykah Badu for the “Best International Newcomer” gong at the 1997 Brit Awards (which they promptly used as a cymbal stand for their drum kit). Unlikely successes.
But, as with the Violent Femmes and Talk Talk before them, they seemed upset by success, afraid of it even. So they retreated, fired the bassist, and then frontman (soon to be only man) E suffered the much publicised suicide of his sister and prolonged death from cancer of his mother. The desire to both discuss these matters, and to make an album that ignored the mainstream, resulted in Electro Shock Blues, one of the most harrowing, exhausting, and upsetting albums of the 1990s (a great deal of critical reaction to it revolved around the idea that listening to a man recount his sister’s final hours comatose on a bathroom floor wasn’t really the stuff of entertainment). It didn’t stop them being successful. #12 in the charts, outselling the debut album by Billie, who’d just come off the back of two number one singles.
They kept on running away from the overground. Daisies of the Galaxy was singled out by Ari Fleischer as an example of the music that was corrupting American youth during the 2000 US election campaign, whilst Souljacker produced the first ever hit single about incest, and saw E dress up as Theodore Kaczynski for all publicity. Still they sold records, in big numbers.
Then 2003’s Shootenany! came around, and Mark Everett had found a way to finally stop those sales figures: by releasing a shitty album. You could have assumed that was the end of it, yet another false prophet from the 1990s alt.rock years reduced to a shambles of his former self. Oh, ye of little faith.
Alt.rock’s premier curmudgeon is back. He’s back and he’s set out to make a masterpiece. You can tell he’s set out to make a masterpiece because this is a double album (30 tracks in all), it has orchestral passages, it has a pretentious name, and he’s talking about the big topics of religion and faith (in interviews at least, on the album he seems to have other thoughts on his mind).
He’s no longer signed to DreamWorks though. He now makes his home on Vagrant Records, amid The Dashboard Confessionals and The Alkaline Trios amongst others, and fittingly he’s taken teen angst as one of his new muses. Hey, he’s role-played as a serial killer and a hermit on his tracks before, why shouldn’t he play some on the 15-year-old burning incense in his room tip? “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” contains the lines “Do you know what it’s like to care too much / Thinking about someone that you’ll never touch?,” and it becomes weirdly apparent that we’re now nine years divorced from the first Eels album, we’re nine years older than when it came out, and those of us who grew up listening to it are now all in our early-to-mid 20s. So he plays up to this, romanticises unrequited love, but not for 15 year olds taking a break from their Lostprophets albums to cut up their arms, but for those who’ve been listening along. He may as well have called the song “Hey Now (Remember When You Were Like This? What Were You Thinking?”). The entire album is full of self-reference, a number of songs threaten to turn into “Ant Farm” or “Climbing Up To The Moon,” whilst “Trouble With Dreams” deliberately cribs its sudden drum rolls and creeping organs off of their 2000 single “Flyswatter.” He’s cannibalising himself for the sake of putting out his own personal Best of Eels. And, yes, this may well be the best of the Eels, his greatest achievement to date, because he reaches so far on nearly every track, and yet still finds something to grab on to.
It’s not just Best of Eels however, though. “Last Time We Spoke” sounds like Sons of the Pioneers, except with three of the members replaced with a howling dog, whilst “Mother Mary” comes from the same school of thought that gave us Trilville ft. Lil Scrappy’s “Some Cut.” There are enough good ideas on the album to last most bands careers, and they’re all carried out perfectly.
“The Other Shoe” is a nostalgic hark back to the time when all alt.rock bands really wanted to record Murmur, and just to hammer the point home “To Lick Your Boots” features Byrds-loving lactic acid tosser Peter Buck on guitar. Tom Waits and the dude from Lovin’ Spoonful also turn up on tracks, and long-time fans of the group will be happy to see the name “Butch” listed alongside the drums credit again, but the celebrity just seems to back E up, it never overpowers him, or feels like he’s just dragged whoever was walking past the studio at the time in to give him a little bit of extra media kudos.
“Old Shit/New Shit” is the killer though. Guitar lesson arpeggios, 40 Benson and Hedges vocal distortion, and lyrics going around the one lesson that you’ve learned from a decade of Eels: things may be bad now, but they’re only going to get better. Things have gotten better: Eels have released this album. Like the big man himself says: “I’m tired of the old shit/ Let the new shit begin.”
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: APRIL 25 – MAY 1, 2005