“There are two kinds of Christmas people, those who like their Christmas lights to stay on solid and those who like them to blink,” says Mark Oliver Everett (aka E), the leader of Eels. “As a kid, I always had a thing for sitting in the dark and watching the lights blink on and off at random.” Everett’s sixth record, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, is a stunner, a double-disc exploration of the temporary highs and merciless lows of human life.
Dealing with death has been a strong thematic element of Eels records, a direct result of consecutive family tragedies – Everett’s sister committed suicide in 1996, and his mother succumbed to cancer in 1998. On Blinking Lights, the artist continues to wrestle with the aftermath of his losses. On “Suicide Life,” a barren piano embraces his raspy, pleading vocal. “The Other Shoe” is a growling, nihilistic gem, on which E writhes and wails like an injured coyote: “And soon they'll wake up/To the stink of life passing them by/Wake up and smell the stink of their lives.”
While these moments of anguish and desolation are unforgettable, it’s the sweet respites in between that make Blinking Lights a truly great album. After the dense emotional storm of “Trouble With Dreams,” there is an astounding chance to catch your breath – the ghostly instrumental “Marie Floating Over The Backyard.” It’s one of several vignettes on Blinking Lights, all of them featuring E’s fragile "oohs" and "ahhs," washing over a sea of glockenspiels, accordions and autoharps. They peek out and say hello just for a moment, like beautiful little glasses of water that clear your palette for the next offering. The album also benefits from some much-needed blasts of humor, like the Chubby Checker-meets-Sigmund Freud anthem “Going Fetal,” which lets the kids know about the latest psychological dance craze: “Everyone is going fetal/It's the one that’s really real/You're gonna love it if you give it a try/You just lay down like you're gonna die.”
Despite its agonizing subject matter, this record is far from your standard indie mope-fest or gothic tearjerker; it’s an unfeigned portrait of real life, a face wrinkled by smiles as much as winces. It’s a collection of musical wonders that’s about as human as art can get, and it imparts a universal lesson, one that defines the term “bittersweet”: You have to know darkness before you can really appreciate the light.
Appeared in the June 16, 2005, issue of Artvoice. 1>