Secret Meeting score: 84
by Phil Scarisbrick
In his superb memoir – Things The Grandchildren Should Know, Mark Everett (also known as E) explains: ‘Maybe I don’t like people as much as the rest of the world seems to. Seems like the human race is in love with itself. What kind of ego do you have to have to think that you were created in God’s image? I mean, to invent the idea that God must be like us.’ It is questions like this that set the thematic thread for Eels’ 2005 double-record, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.
The exploration of existentialism is nothing new in popular music. In fact, behind love songs, questioning or expressing devotion to an omnipotent must rank highly among the most covered subject matters. When discussing the album, Everett said it was about “God and all the questions related to the subject of God. It’s also about hanging on to my remaining shreds of sanity and the blue sky that comes the day after a terrible storm, and it’s a love letter to life itself, in all its beautiful, horrible glory.” This kind of all-encompassing narrative can only really be done justice when delved into at length, hence Blinking Lights’ thirty-three song, ninety-minute length. The world imagined here seems to be seen through a character’s eyes, but this is a thinly veiled mask.
The vibrant colours that emblazon the sleeve run through the record itself, but also mask a darkness that underpins almost everything we hear on disc one. The journey begins with the nursery rhyme-esque melodies of Theme From Blinking Lights before seeping into the From Which I Came/ A Magic World – a tale of the ‘clean slate’ you have as a new born entering the world full of wonder. Son of a Bitch continues this exploration of infancy, only this time looking at a darker experience as he sings “Mother couldn’t love me/But that didn’t stop me/From liking her/She was my mom/And I was no son of a bitch.” A heartbreaking tale of being spurned by the one person whose love should be a given.
Blinking Lights (For Me) is the first of two title tracks on the first disc, this one telling the tale of a plane crash that he witnessed as a child. At first he noticed the beauty of the “blinking lights on the aeroplane wings” before the horror of what followed. Once again, the emotional double-edged sword that has crafted this album shows the colour and darkness of E’s mind. Trouble With Dreams is our narrator realising that even though dreams can come true, they never match the expectations you place on them as a dream is perfect, whereas real life is seldom this flawless.
On their recent tour, Eels closed their set with a stripped back cover of Brian Wilson’s solo masterpiece, Love & Mercy. Wilson’s ear for melody is why his music is some of the most loved in popular music. E also possesses a similar knack, only his melodies are expressed more subtly, as demonstrated by the slide-guitar-drenched Railroad Man or the grainy, uncomfortable Last Time We Spoke (complete with eery wails from E’s legendary canine companion, Bobby Jr.).
One of the reasons for these pure-pop melodies feeling more disguised is down to E’s gravelly delivery, not too dissimilar to one this album’s many collaborators, Tom Waits. Adding his own unique tones to the track Going Fetal, the fast-paced, frat-rocker that juxtaposes this energy with lyrics that are essentially about giving up. Closing out the first half, we return to Blinking Lights, only this time a simple instrumental version called (For You).
Dust of Ages kicks off the second half but is also about starting over in your own life. As E sings “The dust of ages/Settles on your days/But I’m not fuckin’ around anymore/I’m on my way”, he tells us that to start over you need to leave some old ‘shit’ behind, which segues perfectly into next track Old Shit/New Shit. Continuing the thread of shaking the shackles of your previous life to start over, here he seems to hone in on the ‘shit’ being the people around you. Tying yourself to people who make you fundamentally unhappy will only ever have one outcome, but usually these human relationships are the hardest things to rid yourself of.
Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living) is the album’s only single – a poptastic, fun-filled tune complete with E Street-esque horns and hand claps. This song describes that feeling you get when you know you’re sad, but being sad is the only way you can know when you’re happy. When a loved one dies, you instinctively remember the happy times. If there weren’t any, you wouldn’t care. So these sad times are just a necessary step to having the happy times, and that’s a reassuring thought.
To Lick Your Boots and If You See Natalie both feature REM legend, Peter Buck, on guitar, with the former also being co-penned by him with E. The dark themes of the first disc slowly dissipate as a more defiant narrator explains his psyche to us. If You See Natalie sees him trying to help a girl move forward. The narrator of disc one may very well have gone over the edge with her, but now he can see that life really is worth living, as he tells her to “steady your trembling hands and see what’s in front of you.” This is one of the most stunning songs E has ever written. Its brutal honesty, melancholy-tinged hopefulness and absolute comfort to confront despair really get under your skin.
Ugly Love finds E reflecting on himself as an ugly guy who hasn’t had much luck with relationships. He is getting ready for a date and hopes that this will be the one. However, if she cares about superficial things like money, cars and clothes, he won’t have her. God’s Silence is just that. The music ticks along, seemingly praying for guidance, but a response from ‘him up high’ never comes. This just adds to the confusion as to whether there is any answer to one of the big existential questions that our narrator would like answering.
Where the opening tracks of disc one told us about the ‘magic world’ and being newborn, the finale of disc two reflects on the end of life. The Stars Shine In the Sky Tonight takes the sadness of the end of life, the hopefulness of love and the continued search for God, and ties them together as E sings -“The stars shine in the sky tonight/Like a path beyond the grave/When you wish upon the star/There’s two of us you need to save.”
Final track (and memoir title), Things the Grandchildren Should Know is E setting out his stall and explaining everything. He illustrates his struggles with introverted, anti-social tendencies through remarks that just saying hello to someone when walking his dog is a challenge he had to overcome. Yet still, he makes it clear that he enjoys people and enjoys his life. He references his father – who died of heart failure brought on by chain-smoking, alcoholism and obesity when he was just 51 – by singing – “I’m turning out just like my father/Though I swore I never would/Now I can say that I have love for him/I never really understood/What it must have been like for him/Living inside his head/I feel like he’s here with me now/Even though he’s dead.” In the end, after all the soul-searching, despair, love, loss, suicidal thoughts, beauty, death, light and darkness, our narrator says – “But if I had to do it all again/Well, it’s something I’d like to do.”
Music has the ability to be completely life-changing. It allows us to explore emotions and ideas that we can often struggle to merely with words and our own thoughts. The right chord change can bring a tear to your eye, the right vocal delivery can make you make you shudder, and sometimes (to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen) ‘we learn more from a three-minute record than we ever learn in school’. This whole album feels like an exercise in compartmentalising all of Everett’s neuroses and issues, then laying them out and looking at them from an outside point of view to better understand them. He is a man who experienced some of the most tragic lows that one can experience, but can also see that life is a gift.
This collection of songs is not only a stunningly executed piece of art, but a testament to the stubbornness of the human psyche. You can search for the answers to your issues in many places – including in God – but you have them within you already. And that is a comforting thought, and one that can only be truly expressed by someone who has experienced the extremes of what it means to be human. Now we can see it through his eyes, and his beautiful music. A love letter to life, and a revelation.