Monday, May 16, 2016

Eels: Where to Start?

With 11 studio albums, 7 live albums, a couple of compilations, and goodness knows what else to choose from, newcomers would be forgiven for not knowing where to start with Eels. Do you begin with Beautiful Freak (home of Novocaine for the Soul, probably the best-known Eels track of all) and go from there? Or is it better to work backwards from The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, the band's most recent release?

The first Eels album that I bought was Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, released in 2005. As a ninety-minute double album that's slap-bang in the middle of the band's back catalogue, Blinking Lights is hardly the most obvious entry point for an Eels virgin, but if you were to ask me which album you should start with, I'd almost certainly recommend this one.

Blinking Lights is a concept album that tackles the largest concept of all: life, and what it's like to live it. We follow Eels mainman Mark Oliver Everett (better known as 'E') through all the ups and downs of his turbulent lifetime, from the very beginning to the almost-end: Disc 1 begins with E's birth (From Which I Came/A Magic World), and Disc 2 ends with him as an old man looking back on it all (Things the Grandchildren Should Know).

The songs in between cover just about every detail and life event you could imagine, including...
  • E's early childhood (Son of a Bitch)
  • E's frustrated teenage years (Trouble with Dreams)
  • Young love (In the Yard, Behind the Church)
  • Mental breakdown (Going Fetal)
  • Realising you're getting older (Dust of Ages)
  • Finally realising how to be happy (Hey Man)
And those are just half a dozen of the album's 33 tracks. I haven't yet read Everett's autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know; I've heard that it's a superb read, but frankly, this musical autobiography does a very good job of telling his life story on its own.

But Blinking Lights doesn't just tell the story of Mark Oliver Everett himself - it also works pretty well as a potted summary of Eels' entire discography, both harking back to the albums that preceded it and offering clues as to what came later. For example, the squalling weirdness of Mother Mary is reminiscent of Cancer for the Cure from Electro-Shock Blues, while tracks like Checkout Blues and Blinking Lights (For Me) recall that album's sparser, bleaker moments. The howlin', hollerin' climax of The Other Shoe foreshadowed the wolf-like vocal style that featured so prominently on Hombre Lobo; Last Time We Spoke and I'm Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart would have been right at home on End Times, as would Understanding Salesmen had it been about a lover rather than a father. The singles, Trouble with Dreams and Hey Man (Now You're Really Living), are full-blooded and poppy like Shootenanny!, whereas Sweet Li'l Thing and To Lick Your Boots are light and breezy like Daisies of the Galaxy and Tomorrow Morning.

The sprawling, all-encompassing nature of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations may make it seem a little intimidating at first, but I honestly believe that it's an even better introduction to the band than Meet the Eels, the best-of that the band put out in 2008. Not only does it give you the same pic 'n' mix flavour of everything E has done, but it doesn't spoil any of the other awesome albums you might want to listen to later on (my personal favourite is Electro-Shock Blues, but those who favour the more upbeat material from Blinking Lights may prefer Daisies of the Galaxy).

So that's my recommendation: start with Blinking Lights and Other Revelations to find out what you like about Eels, and then plot a course from there. As a taste, here's the video for Trouble with Dreams:

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