As you’ll know if you read yesterday’s post, I was inspired by a recent TV series on BBC 4 to post a countdown of my seven favourite albums of all time. This is the first entry in that list, and I can therefore reveal that my seventh-favourite album of all time is:
Blinking Lights was Eels’ eighth album, and the sixth to have been given a mainstream release from the get-go. A double album consisting of songs written over an eight-year period, it was released in 2005. It was by and large well-received by critics, and reached number 16 in the UK charts. Thematically, this is an album about death, grief and insanity, although it’s not as unrelentingly miserable as that makes it sound. Overall, the album is cautiously uplifting, a proof of the old adage that you have to experience the worst of life in order to appreciate the best of life.
Most critics have assumed that it is autobiographical – it’s routinely described as “an intensely personal record” – and have noted that it seems to involve E (the leading and only constant member of the band, and the principal songwriter) reflecting on the death of his parents, and the suicide of his sister. Personally, I’m always a little wary of this kind of biographical criticism in general, and more especially when it comes to Eels – I’m not clear to what extent E is actually Mark Oliver Everett, and the extent to which he is a separate persona consciously created by Everett to allow him some creative separation between his life and work. My gut feeling is that Everett’s life provides some of the source material, but the way it’s elaborated and amplified is a more creative than autobiographical process.
Whatever the precise nature of the relationship between Everett and his art, there seems to me little doubt that Blinking Lights is written by a man with a deep understanding of mental illness, whether that understanding is personal or empathetic. The almost-title-track, ‘Blinking lights (for me)’, deals with delusions of reference (‘Blinking lights on the airplane wings […] a Morse code message especially for me’), and is also a beautiful evocation of the moment at which delusions begin to abate, and the prospect of recovery begins to come into view – and all of that in a two-minute song. In a darker register, ‘Suicide Life’ perfectly describes the grinding, low-grade misery of anhedonia.
The album also seems to reflect in its structure the cyclical nature of mental illness. It doesn’t follow a simple path from dark to light, nor yet the slightly more complex but still well-trodden path of euphoria-to-despair-to-resolution. It cycles repetitively between the two poles (I think bipolar disorder is in the DNA of this album), albeit on a broadly upwards trajectory – the downs become shallower and the ups more sustainable as the album progresses. It closes with a wonderful, uplifting, mellow song focussed on self-acceptance (‘Things The Grandchildren Should Know’), but doesn’t pretend that the album ending means the cycling has stopped.
At it’s beginning the album is painfully self-focussed, almost obsessively so: most of the lyrics refer to “I” or “me”, with “you” only mentioned in strict relation to the first person. As the album progresses it gradually opens up, taking more interest in the broader world. The track around which this movement seems to pivot is an instrumental track (the judicious use of instrumentals is one of the great joys of this album), ‘Theme For A Pretty Girl Who Makes You Believe God Exists’, which comes towards the end of the first disc: as the bold chords strummed on a 12-string acoustic guitar kick in, you can feel the album start to open up and breathe. It’s a remarkable moment on a remarkable album, a beautiful celebration of hope made all the more precious for being immediately preceded by a song about crushing social isolation (‘Understanding Salesmen’) and followed by one that acknowledges the inevitability of depression (‘Checkout Blues’).
Musically, the album takes in a lot of different genres – everything from (a parody of) dumb stadium rock, to blues and country. That said, it’s all filtered through the standard Eels sound, and there are several examples of the typical Eels number – you know, the sort of song built round a hard, heavy beat, and a descending bass riff, and decorated with a ‘plinky plinky’ part over the top, which has been Eels’ bread and butter throughout their career. But there are more unusual songs, too, such as ‘Dust of Ages’, which sounds like a Bach chorale gone wrong (not an insult – the subversion of Bach’s divinely-ordered cosmos is deliberate, I think), and ‘The Stars Shine In The Sky Tonight’, which invokes the ghost of a Beethoven piano sonata.
At it’s heart, this is an album about life, and all the things in life – the negative, as well as the positive. It moves me, profoundly, because there’s nothing starry-eyed or naïve about it: it acknowledges that life can be bleak, bare, awful, desperate – and is even so worth living for the scattered moments of joy it provides. It’s life-affirming in a way that an album that never went to the dark could never be. It’s the scarcity of joy that makes it so precious: this album understands that, and that’s what makes it great.
So that was my seventh-favourite album of all time: Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, by Eels. Come back tomorrow to find out my sixth-favourite…