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Two years ago, around new year, I had a conversation with a friend about what had been on TV over Christmas. Conversation turned to Shrek as 'Shrek the Halls' had recently been on. He thought that the soundtracks were particularly good on these films, especially since they had all (to that date) featured at least one Eels track. I'd never really heard any of their songs, said I. You must get some Eels! said he.
So off I went to LastFM to listen to the odd track. First off I discovered that the song I'd particularly liked on Shrek 1 was My Beloved Monster, from the first Eels album Beautiful Freak. OK, so far so good. My friend had particularly recommended the song "Magic World" to me, and I listened, a couple or three times, and I began to see what he meant... finding myself in the local HMV with a copy of the album Blinking Lights and Revelations (from whence it came)there in front of me, I gave in and bought it.
Now this album has a story. The guy behind the band, Mark Oliver Everett (or E, as he's often known), has had quite an extraordinary life, and this double album from 2005 is autobiographical. It makes a very good companion piece to his actual written autobiography, published a couple of years later (Things the Grandchildren Should Know, which I have previously reviewed), and when you get to know the lyrics, cross-referencing with the accounts of events in the book is fascinating.
There are 33 tracks on this album, and to comment at length on each one would be insane, so I'll attempt to give a sort of overview and flavour of the album as whole.
'Theme From Blinking Lights' is an introductory instrumental piece, which reappears later on in different forms as links between songs. I have to give track two 'From Which I Came/ A Magic World' a mention, with it being one of the first inklings I had that Eels might be a band I'd get into. It's a delicately beautiful, acoustic-led song about being born, and the wonder a baby might feel at being new, arriving in this magical world with no history, and having everything to learn and explore. It's a gloriously optimistic start.
Then reality hits. The songs that follow explore the themes of the awkwardness of his parents (a drunk-sounding, lurching, horn-led 'Son of a Bitch'), a dreamy rescue from a car crash ('Blinking Lights (For Me)'), and a sulky piece on the unreliability of big dreams ('Trouble With Dreams'), which is a faster paced song with a heavy drum shuffling it along. Two slower tracks maintain a melancholic feel, until we reach 'In the Yard, Behind The Church', one of my favourite tracks, which returns to optimism and a sense of freedom. E writes of a secret place where the butterflies and blackbirds perch, where the troubles of the day can be forgotten. It's a lovely, summery song. 'Railroad Man' follows it with a breezy, guitar-picking reflection on how times may have changed but he'll still find his way home. But then it's straight back down again with an angry, slowly building piece, 'The Other Shoe', reminiscent (in sound at least) of Dylanesque protest songs.
The album continues in this 'one minute up, the next minute down' way - it reflects very well the way that E's life has often been success followed by disappointment, or more often tragedy, and occasionally peppered with mad moments. 'Mother Mary' and 'Going Fetal' fit into this category, both tracks are in a much more quirky vein, 'Going Fetal' has a very distinctive contribution by Tom Waits - he cries like a baby at strategic points during the song, at which all the girls in the crowd scream wildly. Both tracks are also closer to rock than pop in places, 'Mother Mary' in particular rocking out in the choruses.
Some of the most affecting songs are the ones about his family, 'Understanding Salesmen' is one of these, which is particularly about E's relationship (or lack of it) with his father, and how sad it made him. It's a slow, thoughtful and in my opinion extremely poignant moment on the first disc, sung accompanied only by acoustic guitar and strings.
Another change of mood with the instrumental break 'Theme for a Pretty Girl That Makes you Believe God Exists', and the optimistic close to disc one, 'Checkout Blues', a simple but pretty song, with lyrics expressing the hope that things may get better, and wondering if he can overcome his circumstances. 'Blinking Lights (For You)' provides the instrumental interlude which ends the disc, and leads us to hope that disc two might bring better news....
Well, 'Dust of Ages' starts us off with a sort of grim determination to change. 'Old Shit/New Shit' is where the real determination starts, an upbeat and driving song, and whilst there are still moments of melancholy, there's a lot more positivity on disc two. 'Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)' is another standout, again very upbeat, and a great singalong song, with a sax solo! There's something I suspect everyone could identify with in this song, and I guess that if you read the words you'd never in a million years imagine that it was such a lively thing. "Have you ever sat down in the fresh cut grass, thought about the moment and when it'll pass? Hey man, now you're really living", "Do you know what it's like to care too much, 'bout someone that you're never going to get to touch? Hey man, now you're really living". It's actually quite rowdy, and you can see the home-made budget-saving video for it on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phCVfjihPn8
'Lick Your Boots' is an ego boost for some one who's been having a hard time, an easy-going, sunny-weather melody slipping along; 'If You See Natalie' is an ego boost of an entirely different kind, more of an encouragement for someone at a very low ebb, sung tenderly over piano and strings, a late-night jazzy feel, with subtle percussion and plucked double bass in the background.
'Sweet Li'l Thing' is sweet little song about a sweetheart, another sunny, cheerful number, and the good mood lasts on the whole for the rest of the album, with the track 'Losing Streak' declaring that the run of bad luck seems to be over. The final track, 'Things the Grandchildren Should Know', lists all sorts of interesting facts about E that he feels should be passed down for posterity. When asked once why he'd given this title to his autobiography, since he has no children yet let alone grandchildren, he joked that he was skipping straight to grandchildren. The poor French interviewer was completely perplexed....
In my opinion this is a masterful work, combining a life story told very poetically, and without labouring his misfortunes, with some typically great tunes and excellent musical arrangements, from quiet piano or acoustic guitar with a sensitive vocal through to loud shouty protesting rock, all in one album. I suppose you'd call the majority of the songs in some way pop or folk pop, but always with a singer-songwriter edge to them. It is a great listen, you can have it on in the background but I can pretty much guarantee that every now and again a song will leap out and hijack your ears.
My friend's recommendation? Well, yet again he ended up making me spend a lot of money on CDs - I now have the entire back-catalogue and am looking forward to seeing them live very soon. I heartily pass on his recommendation. If you haven't heard Eels, this is a great place to start!
PARENTAL ADVISORY: although this album has escaped the dreaded sticker, there is a little strong language on this album.
Track Listing - Disc 1 :
01 theme from blinking lights
02 from which i came/a magic world
03 son of a bitch
04 blinking lights (for me)
05 trouble with dreams
06 marie floating over the backyard
07 suicide life
08 in the yard, behind the church
09 railroad man
10 the other shoe
11 last time we spoke
12 mother mary
13 going fetal
14 understanding salesmen
15 theme for a pretty girl that makes you believe god exists
16 checkout blues
17 blinking lights (for you)
Track Listing - Disc 2 :
01 dust of ages
02 old shit/new shit
03 bride of theme from blinking lights
04 hey man (now you're really living)
05 i'm going to stop pretending that i didn't break your heart
06 to lick your boots
07 if you see natalie
08 sweet li'l thing
09 dusk: a peach in the orchard
10 whatever happened to soy bomb
11 ugly love
12 god's silence
13 losing streak
14 last days of my bitter heart
15 the stars shine in the sky tonight
16 things the grandchildren should know
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Theme From Blinking Lights
2 From Which I Came / A Magic World
3 Son Of A Bitch
4 Blinking Lights (For Me)
5 Trouble With Dreams
6 Marie Floating Over The Backyard
7 Suicide Life
8 In The Yard, Behind The Church
9 Railroad Man
10 The Other Shoe
11 Last Time We Spoke
12 Mother Mary
13 Going Fetal
14 Understanding Salesman
15 Theme For A Pretty Girl That Makes You Believe God Exists
16 Checkout Blues
17 Blinking Lights (For You)
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Dust Of Ages
2 Old Shit / New Shit
3 Bride of Theme From Blinking Lights
4 Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)
5 I'm Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart
6 To Lick Your Boots
7 If You See Natalie
8 Sweet Li'l Thing
9 Dusk:A Peach In The Orchard
10 Whatever Happened To Soy Bomb
11 Ugly Love
12 God's Silence
13 Losing Streak
14 Last Days Of My Bitter Heart
15 The Stars Shine In The Sky Tonight
16 Things The Grandchildren Should Know