Eels’ Souljacker hit the streets in September 2001 sporting a cover photo of frontman Mark “E” Everett in dark sunglasses, a hoodie and full beard, looking like one of the fellows we were supposed to be smoking out of holes. That alienating image has lingered, but it’s about to disappear. Eels’ long-awaited sixth album, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, is by far the most austerely elegant and personal record the group has made: an exquisitely produced magnum opus.
Eels have, of course, made intensely personal albums before, though Souljacker and E’s schizoid stint as MC Honky have scrubbed away at their memory. Electro-Shock Blues (1998) was a stark chronicle of Everett’s bombed-out mindscape during a period that saw his sister commit suicide and his mom slowly die of cancer. The record’s mix of lo-fi acoustic rock, tragicomic lyrics and crackling distortion sounded like a direct feed from Everett’s frizzled synapses.
Blinking Lights, a two-disc, multi-year effort that clocks in at more than ninety minutes, is personal in an entirely new way. Electro-Shock was visceral and reactive, and its folkier follow-up, 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxies, tender and vulnerable, the sound of still-raw wounds being licked. But now E delves deep back into his Virginia childhood, revisiting the family whose loss informed much of that late-1990s work and exhuming a musty backwoods tone from his home state. The second track, “From Which I Came/A Magic World,” recalls a carefree youth — “Long days and dreamy nights/ wide eyes taking all the sights” — at the same time that E’s husky voice illustrates that youth is irretrievable. “Understanding Salesmen” is a plaintive love letter to E’s long-dead father, delivered with understated acoustic guitar and tremulous bow strokes.
As with much of Eels’ best work, however, the most tender moments on Blinking Lights often coincide with the most eccentric or playful (Beautiful Freak‘s Arrested Development-esque “Susan’s House” and Electro-Shock‘s skittering anthem “Cancer for the Cure” being two classic examples). To this end, the album’s surpassing strength is production that never forces E’s zany digressions to march in lockstep with his solemn hymns. “Trouble With Dreams,” with its haunted-house effects, jangly guitars and surf-rock aesthetic, recalls another reflective weirdo: Brian Wilson. The first single, “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living),” doesn’t even make the album’s top ten, but its glowing Rhodes, squealing sax and clap-along choruses offer a boppy diversion in a sober stretch.
This interspersion of sonic and narrative threads has a Faulknerian effect: as with The Sound and the Fury, E’s personal history consists of multiple vernaculars that occasionally collide. So jilted lovers get whiskey-soaked ballads, long-lost cousins earn baby-grand confessionals, and strokes of luck warrant Eddie Money-like grandiosity. But sometimes, everyone speaks the same language: Peter Buck’s aching Dobro on “To Lick Your Boots” is the common tongue of ghosts. And slowly, the story fills in.