Double-album about God, death and love, seven years in the making. Tom Waits and Peter Buck guest
To Mark ‘E’ Everett, life must have long seemed a cosmic black joke. Famously losing his mother to cancer shortly after his sister’s 1996 suicide, his cousin dying on 9/11 was one more blow to a man already fragilely depressed. But he reacted fiercely, self-financing redemptive albums recorded in his basement, short-circuiting major-label compromise. These records patented a sort of surging chamber-pop about how hard and necessary it is to live.
Tentatively begun the year after eels’ hit debut Beautiful Freak (1996), five albums on Blinking Lights further defines E’s ornery kingdom of uncomfortable truth and beauty. It stretches into pop’s outer limits, mourning the absence of God and Mom in a fallen America. When he says making it “almost killed” him, you doubt it’s a metaphor. For E, rock’n’roll really is life and death.
Blinking Lights’ lengthy gestation has left its mark. You can feel the jeweller’s care with which its 33 tracks have been chipped into place. Unfolding with the pregnant pauses of the Bergman movies that were its models, its pace may seen alien, even arthritic. But keep listening, and Blinking Lights comes into focus.
It’s an album composed partly from disgust and defeat, as in “The Other Shoe”’s litany of literal and societal tumours, or “Railroad Man”’s admission of personal obsolescence. The 78 crackle of “Last Time We Spoke”, meanwhile, sees E wounded by the death of someone who knew his soul. But if the quiet of other people’s graves sometimes haunts Blinking Lights, that makes its moments of defiant affirmation more moving. “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” would be a hit if radio was supposed to make you feel, positing gut-spilling pain and heartache as the price of admission to life. In a record that deals soberly with suicide, that could be the belief that allows E to not only still be here, but conclude: “I’m a very thankful man.” Intermittently funny and never depressing, this confirms him among America’s greats.
By Nick Hasted