Hello Internet, I’m Back, and I Have Been Listening to Eels

ftsotools Phew, the internet can breathe a massive sigh of relief, because after over a week of being entirely off the radar and disconnected during our house move, I am now back. You must all be so relieved.

Actually, never mind not having an internet connection installed, my mobile phone signal is so poor here I couldn’t really check my emails, post nonsense on Facebook, or even send the odd tweet, so those of you who follow me on other social media may also have noticed a fairly sustained period of total radio silence. I don’t know about you, but I quite liked it actually. I am not so sure about the constant, relentless painting which replaced it, but at least there was a tangible sense of achievement there.

By the end of the week I was so in need of a good sleep I didn’t get out of bed all day Sunday. Of course I didn’t sleep either. Because I am an idiot I watched stupid television instead, but hey, at least it wasn’t painting.

Anyhow, while we were painting there was a pretty limited playlist on offer, because I didn’t remember to fill up my phone with all that much music, beyond a hurried, drunken quickie on the night before we left our old house for the last time, so we had a pretty limited diet when we first moved in. Still, that can be a nice thing, because it means you spend some time with the music you’re listening to instead of flicking constantly from one thing to the next and there are a couple of tunes which stood out and which I would quite like to mention.

Eels – The Stars Shine in the Sky Tonight

The turn of the milennium seemed to hammer the final nail into the coffin of ‘indie’, if you ask me. Guitar music descended into weak, lifeless pish like Starsailor and David Gray, and bands like Coldplay and Snow Patrol went from being briefly interesting to stadium-filling porridge almost overnight.  The Libertines, The White Stripes and The Strokes looked briefly like they might kickstart a snarling reaction to this, but then all we really ended up with once the dust had settled was a bunch of painfully imitative acolytes, and a pile of cringe-worthily dismal tripe like the Pigeon Detectives, Hard Fi and the fucking Wombats.

This stuff was so very bad that for the last years of the noughties and the first few years of this decade it seemed obligatory for every fucking publication on the internet to write about ‘the death of guitar music’. And they seemed to do this pretty much once a month until every last, specious drop of desperate click-bait had been wrung out of that clearly stupid premise.

Neverthless, for a good long while ‘indie’ or ‘indie-rock’ seemed to be little more than a fringe enthusiasm, and even now the awesome new bands who are championing it again seem to be harking back to a pretty defined period which tailed off in the middle of the nineties. Very late nineties and early noughties guitar music is still pretty considerably tainted by the slew of dreadful pish I mentioned above and it can perhaps cause people to overlook certain bands who I don’t think really deserve it.

Whilst the world was listening to The Ordinary Boys and the Kooks, Eels snuck out what I think I might probably call their last great album. After the Dinosaur Jr/Sebadoh/Pavement golden era of American indie there were a few bands who ploughed vaguely similar furrows, but who to my mind still feel a little like they are part of the same movement. Perhaps the last of that movement as it tailed off to give way to Matchbox 20 and the Goo Goo Dolls, who seemed to be to American indie what overblown post-Britpop nonsense was to its British counterpart.

In terms of great American guitar bands who were a little overlooked during the final death-spasms of the commercial juggernaut which launched from the success of indie music, Grandaddy are perhaps the most obvious and currently one of the most retrospectively lauded – amongst my peers at least. Looking back at their last album, Goodbye to the Fambly Cat, it was released around the time that The Delays and the Zutons were making people hate music – just about the time that indie in the classic sense finally coughed and spluttered its last.

Sparklehorse and Clem Snide are probably two other bands I would put in a similar bracket to Grandaddy around this time: distinctively American guitar bands who had the feeling of being outsiders, were lyrically captivating, caustic, idiosyncratic, and yet still melodic and mainstream enough to be considered pop bands. And another one would be Eels.

Eels are perhaps the least obvious inclusion, I think, as despite some truly brilliant stuff, they have also produced a lot of fairly schmalzy, sentimentalist radio pop. Their last three or four albums, frankly, haven’t really set my world alight, but that can mask the fact that they have produced some absolutely gorgeous, heart-breaking music.

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations was a massive double album, released a full twenty years after Mark Everett’s 1985 debut and almost ten years after Eels’ breakthrough with Beautiful Freak, and given the history of artists producing such releases, it really should have been sloppy, self-indulgent crap with too few good songs and plenty of pale imitation of past glories. But it was brilliant. Granted, there were weaker songs on there, and granted, it didn’t exactly reinvent the Eels sound, but there are so many glorious moments on this album that I was genuinely shocked to see so much good material emerging at once, when most bands struggle to put out much more than one decent album every two or three years.

And Everett can be sentimental to the point of being schmalzy, I would accept that, but when he captures pathos just right or nails a sad song there are few better lyricists out there anywhere. His life has been so unfortunately full of depression and death that when he sings this stuff you don’t for a second doubt that he knows what he’s talking about.  When he writes lines like “It’s not where you’re coming from, it’s where you’re going to. And I just want to go with you” it’s all too easy to make a connection with some of the loss he has suffered in his past.

Similarly, when the same song moves on to say “The stars shine in the sky tonight, like a path beyond the grave. When you wish upon that star, there’s two of us you need to save” that line sounds very different coming from someone who you know means it in the most heart-rending sense imaginable. I don’t know how I’d feel about any of these lyrics without knowing any back-story. You can’t unlearn this kind of thing of course. But the lines are simple and delivered without forced emoting, and I think that gives them impact whether you know of their provenance or not.

So yes, as indie died a slow, painful death brought on by massive overground success, balloon like over-inflation and subsequent implosion, there were still some great bands and great writers working in what was broadly an increasingly moribund field. And they shouldn’t be ignored just because of fucking Keane.

The Eels website has this to say about this album. There’s more too, and you can read it here.

“Everett’s father, famed quantum physicist Hugh Everett III, author of the Many Worlds Theory, died in 1982. His sister, Elizabeth committed suicide in 1996 and his mother, Nancy, who appears in a childhood photo on the cover of BLINKING LIGHTS, succumbed to cancer in 1998. “I would have ended up like my sister a long time ago except for one thing — music,” says Everett, “I’ve been very lucky to have that to hold onto. I take it very seriously. Maybe too seriously. It’s everything to me.”

“”The family I grew up with was completely gone by 1998. I dealt with it at the time by making ELECTRO-SHOCK BLUES. But it’s something that is never going to change for me and its implications are far-reaching in my life,” he says. And the “curse” didn’t let up after 1998, either: Everett’s cousin Jennifer was a flight attendant on the plane that hit the Pentagon September 11, 2001. “There’s kind of a ghostly sound to a lot of BLINKING LIGHTS,” says Everett, “maybe because I’m living with a bunch of ghosts.”