Eels - Blinking Lights & Other Revelations
Alex Worsnip 25/04/2005
I am not generally a fan of double albums. In fact I can count the number of double albums I really like on one hand. Even the best - Wilco's 'Being There', The Beatles' 'The White Album', Stevie Wonder's 'Songs In The Key Of Life' - suffer from a lack of quality control at times. But Eels seem like the kind of band that could carry a double album off. Mainman E has always been prolific, and their traditional approach fits with a high output. So in approaching Blinking Lights I expected a box of varied wonders, enormously eclectic, perhaps a bit hit and miss, but containing several gems. Blinking Lights has been in the making for several years, and word is previous album "Shootenanny" - not their finest record, but a good one nevertheless - was knocked off in a few days to keep fans tided over. Thus you expect magnificent
things. What an incredible let down it is, then, that Eels' most
ambitious album is their worst to date.
The main problem with Blinking Lights is that most of the songs are dreadfully insubstantial. Perhaps to try to counterbalance the length of the record, many of the tracks are barely fully-fleshed songs at all. Thus, although the scale of the album as a whole is grand, none of the songs themselves achieve this scale. Not a single track is actually what you would call bad, but many of the songs feature one fairly nice melody, meander briefly, and then finish before they've really started, and on to the next track of this huge selection we go. Thus it can never really add up to anything. Track after track is a nice little ditty, accompanied merely by piano or guitar - 'Blinking Lights', 'Suicide Life', 'Last Time We Spoke', 'Ugly Love' - the list goes on and on, or a simple instrumental - 'Theme For A Pretty Girl', 'Dusk: A Peach In The Orchard', 'Last Days Of My Bitter Heart'. At times, you feel the song writing is back in the 1940s. Eels have always produced these sorts of tracks - in fact some of their finest are of the same cloth - '3 Speed', for instance. But they only work when they're interspersed amongst more substantial songs with full instrumentation. Perhaps the total simplicity would consistently work were E a classically excellent vocalist, but, although unique, he isn't, and the strength of Eels has always been in their ideas, arrangements, emotion
Few tracks even have a chorus. It's immensely frustrating, because it's nice stuff, but for such a massive work, amazingly inconsequential. There are seeds of great songs on almost every track, but few have blossomed. The record is at its best where it gets going a bit, usually at its most upbeat. Tellingly, the two best tracks - the positive-but-slightly-wrong 'Going Fetal', which is probably E's idea of a party record, and the gorgeous driving pop of 'To Lick Your Boots'
- feature an injection of life from guest artists - Tom Waits and REM's Peter Buck respectively. Elsewhere, The slightly darker 'Trouble With Dreams' achieves that classic Eels feat of going from anguished to sweet in one vocal turn, and 'Old Shit/New Shit' is a shimmering epic with shades of Mercury Rev. But these moments are few and far between, and although several other tracks are pretty well done, for every one of these, there is a pointless track, or, more usually, two or three pointless tracks following it, and the decent ones get lost.
Never do Eels really reach the level of their best previous work. Although the fully-formed tracks are a welcome respite, and are good in a sense, time was Eels were making albums that had track after track that was better. You see the same style of tracks from previous albums coming back in less enthralling forms. Single 'Hey Man' is an ironically kitsch pop song in the mould of 'Last Stop: This Town' or 'Mr E's Beautiful Blues', but lacks the musical texture and killer
hooks of those tracks. 'I'm Gonna Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart' is a tortured ballad, but doesn't come close to 'Not Ready Yet' or 'Agony', tracks it resembles both lyrically and in melody (though not arrangement - it is, typically of Blinking Lights, more stripped down). 'Mother Mary' harks back to the stomping, bluesy sound of the louder parts of 'Souljacker', but nothing here has the joyful experimentalism of rackets like 'That's Not Really Funny' and 'Jungle Telegraph'.
It's not even that Blinking Lights is inconsistent through its length, because nothing here is wonderful (nor is anything terrible!) More frustratingly, though, if all the ideas here had been condensed down and developed, we could have something good. If E had developed his songs when he felt creative, rather than starting a new one each time and leaving existing ones as half-finished, this could have been a very good record. Instead, Blinking Lights is always nice, but never really special. And that's genuinely a huge disappointment for me, because I love Eels. Here's hoping for next time.