On 2003's Shootenanny!, Eels frontman and songwriter Mark Oliver Everett seemed to approach his work with fresh ears. He cut through his own trademark lyric and production excesses (very evident on the wonderfully messy and rocked-up Souljacker) and came up with an offering of quirky, sparking tunes that were shot through with American roots music and his trademark power pop hooks, while never compromising his stubbornly iconoclastic way of looking at the world. The same cannot be said for Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Over 90 minutes and 33 songs, E opens his own, personal Pandora's Box and lets everything out musically, lyrically, and emotionally. This is the most searingly personal album E and his ad hoc stable of cohorts have recorded since Electro-Shock Blues -- though it's not as unremittingly dark. The handsomely designed double digipack is adorned with familial photographs -- including a cover shot of his mother as a child. Strings, brass, tinkling bells, and gauzy layers of sonic textures stream through these haphazard songs. In fact, despite the appearance of family, childhood, changing times, and other concerns of personal narrative, Blinking Lights is not a unified album; its tunes are gathered seemingly willy-nilly conceptually. No matter; it is E's world-weary voice that holds the disparate parts of the album together in a loose, soft web that envelopes him and the listener. It sits dead center, allowing the tensions, textures, and moods to grip and release him at will. He expresses it all honestly, without immersion or unnecessary put-on detachment. It is his voice that gives the record a type of spiritual quality, one that seems to gauge lessons learned -- either with acceptance or rejection -- from the various truths revealed. Family and history are woven together over the entirety to create not only introspection but a sense of time's slippage, emotional and physical displacement, and grief that is offset in places by poignant humor.
Disc one's standouts include the glorious "Railroad Man," a country-ish lament for that quickly disappearing way of life, while "Son of a Bitch," with its elegant saxophones, weepy pedal steel, and stately pace, offsets the painful revelation of the protagonist, "Going Fetal," a new dance tune (à la the Twist) features a vocal sample by Tom Waits and a faux, live rave-up setting fueled completely by a loopy Wurlitzer and a lyric that expresses with true irony the perceived joy of escape. "Mother Mary" is a stomping organ and rhythm-driven track that references reggae and carnival music. Its subject matter is offset by the musical attack and the eerie sound of an empty playground swing weaving its way through the mix. The second disc begins with the elegiac yet shimmering "Dust of Ages," which feels like a demo from Peter Gabriel's second album. "I'm Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart" is gem-like pop/rock balladry, while "Dusk: A Peach in the Orchard" -- co-written with the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian -- is a modern folk song that comes from the broken heart of memory, and could have been written during the Civil War era. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck co-wrote and performs on the ironic "To Lick Your Boots." The set closes with the bittersweet personal testament "Things the Grandchildren Should Know." It's unfocused and leaky lyrically, but it gets to emotional places most songwriters only dream of. Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is blessed because of -- not in spite of -- its excesses. It's not like anything else out there right now. It makes no apologies, it's shaky in places, and there are cuts that don't seemingly belong on either disc but fit within the context of the album as a whole. It feels like E and his collaborators have made an honest to goodness indie rock record, one that is immediate yet whose depths cannot be fathomed immediately. It's unwieldy, too long, irritating in some places, graceful in others, and sometimes clumsy. But it is utterly original and startlingly beautiful. At this juncture, records like this are almost museum pieces, mistakenly and cynically written off to the delusions of pop grandeur of earlier eras. Thank goodness rock music as we once knew it still exists in the minds and hearts of some of our more perceptive artists. E is one of them; he put everything into making Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, and the payoff is that it shows.