|Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 26 April 2005|
So I was all set to trash my reputation as a nice guy/enlightened critic – actually, that’s a mythical beast, if not an oxymoron – and say some not so nice things about the new eels album, titled blinking lights and other revelations. Then I saw the “homemade” video E (nom de musique of Mark Oliver Everett, who is 99% of the eels) made for “hey man (now you’re really living)” – a truly schizophrenic, great little number I can’t get out of my head – and despite my conviction that music should stand on its own and far too many Children of the Tube run out and buy an album because they liked the video (would you do that with a car? I mean, actually buy it because you liked the commercial?), I was charmed and thought, awwww, he really is a troubled but sympathetic soul, a precious rebel, we need more like him, a gifted artist who’s been through a lot, and the songs are excellent, and he is a critics’ darling – how can I write anything negative?
Then, as I’m watching, I see that the whole set-up for the video is a sham. Everett threw out the line and MTV gobbled it like a starving trout thrown in a basket with a cheeseball sandwich.
“Eels' E Lets Us See Him at His Worst,” their on-line “news” story is headlined. “E … shot what he boasts is the cheapest video ever made … ‘I had to film myself with the song on the stereo. You got all the trappings of working at home when you're making a video like that. I wasn't really warmed up properly. I did a couple of soul screams that I do on the record, but I did them kind of off-key and the dog started howling. It was a mess.’
“E shot one take and then played it back. ‘I was really embarrassed for myself, and that's what convinced me that I should put it out,’ he said. ‘It's so real. It's not a flattering portrait of the artist whatsoever. There are no special effects.’”
As I watched, the camera’s p.o.v. jump to the dog not once, not twice, but three times as he howled, and there was no break in the music. One take? No editing? If E was truly surprised by the dog’s unexpected duet, there’s no way he could’ve whipped the camera around fast enough to catch it. Three times. And why is there no change in the music volume or fidelity when he steps outside the house, if he’s playing the song for us on the stereo, which is inside the house? “Is this thing on?” he says as the video begins, looking at the camera in his face. “I’m not really sure how to work this …” Yeah, right. But he sure knows how to work us.
Call me mean, call me petty, but this nails what bothers me about E, the eels, and this double disc, supposedly seven years in the making. It’s just too pat. Too coy. Too much schtick, too little heart.
Credit where it’s most assuredly due: blinking lights is loaded with great tunes masterfully constructed with memorable hooks and instantly likable melodies, extremely creative, unique, off-the-wall instrumentation and arrangements and inspired lyrics, sung by E in his seductive style, ranging from falsetto to screaming rocker to Tom Waits (20 years ago, when Tom could still hit something you could call a note). He’s one of the very best song-crafters you’ll find anywhere, his lyrics full of striking images, with true economy of words. This probably is his best album; it certainly has the most songs you’ll adore and sing along to. (With 33 songs, more than 90 minutes of music, that’s not so surprising.)
Sooo … how come I’m not liking it? I’m admiring it, but not liking it. I just keep getting a sense of nothing to hold on to. If this was my introduction to the eels, I’d probably be yelling in the streets that I’d found the Great White Hope. But while E may have hit the top of his game here, it’s not that different from all his previous work. The fascination with toy pianos and drums, autoharps and the rest is a bit worn by now. He grew up with a toy piano, we’re told, begged for a set of toy drums and played them every day for 10 years. Is it fair to expect him to bring in screaming guitars, reggae beats or gospel choirs? Do I ask that of Dylan or Norah Jones or Rufus Wainwright? What about his jaundiced world view? Who am I to tell him to get happy? I didn’t discover the dead body of my father as a child, experience the suicide of my sister and the death from cancer of my mother, not to mention E’s cousin, who was a flight attendant on the hijacked plane that exploded into the Pentagon. If his songs are a bit on the morose or fatalistic side, who’s got better reasons? (Although, in this day of liars at the New York Times and Newsweek, shouldn’t somebody check and see if his story is all true, or seasoned with some PR fantasy?) Blinking lights is supposed to be E’s attempt to deal with his bizarre life story; certainly that’s worth a double CD. So what’s my problem?
Knowing all that, I listen, I marvel, I even love to sing along on choruses, but there’s just something real that’s missing. There’s an emotional disconnect. I don’t feel him feeling it, or even experiencing the dilemma of not feeling it. For all the lo-fi, it’s just too slick, in a hard-to-pin-down way. But shouldn’t you expect someone with his life to be dealing with emotional numbness? Isn’t that the disconnect I feel? I thought so, until I saw the subtle con job with the video, and somehow that blew a flash of recognition that put the puzzle together. He wasn’t being sarcastic and expecting us to catch on, he was selling it for what it looked like. Ohh, there’s that E, doing the unthinkable again, the lo-tech, the real deal, the world’s cheapest video and it’s pretty cool.
No, I think ol’ Mark Everett is one helluva salesman. He’s found a niche that’s brought him recognition and a comfortable lifestyle, and he’s not about to go anywhere else. He’s paid the dues to do what he does musically and lyrically and he’s going to keep doing it, whether his heart’s in it any more or not. In fact, I think he’s probably a pretty bright, creative guy who enjoys the challenge of seeing how far he can go, how far he can string us along. In his L.A. home, the counter-counterculture loves his genre, it celebrates and elevates the geek, tries to make you feel elitist and out of it if you don’t see the beauty in celebrated ugliness. L.A. is rampant with ugly fashion and ugly art and ugly music that some critic somewhere will delight in proclaiming an eccentric masterpiece, and E is one of their darlings.
You may love this album and I really don’t want to rain on your parade. I did give it decent scores for something I have such misgivings about. If you’re new to the eels, you might go nuts over this set, and I couldn’t blame you much. But if you’re a long-time fan, I think you better take another look. There are a lot of naked emperors running around under the palm trees.
As obliquely referred to in the review, this is simple-minded (though brilliantly constructed) music performed in a simple, at times childlike way. Because the arrangements are full and skillful, you often don’t notice how spare the instrumentation is, or that there sometimes are no electric or even acoustic guitars, or that the drums have that kind of tinny, clunky sound because they’re toy drums. It’s fun and different (except the eels have been doing it that way for 13 years), but sometimes you just wish there was a little more meat behind those good songs. E is a striking vocalist, and takes on multiple styles ranging from the frighteningly delicate to the rockin’ screamer, which gives these 33 songs a bit more bearable variety than the instrumentation provides.