On Second Thought
Eels - Daisies Of The Galaxy






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

It’s May 1997 and Mark ‘E’ Everett is busy introducing himself to the British public on Top Of The Pops in characteristically eccentric fashion. Halfway through Eels’s mimed performance of “Novocaine For The Soul,” E and drummer Butch abandon any pretence of playing their instruments and instead gleefully take to stamping up and down upon Butch’s miniature child’s drumkit like hyperactive toddlers on a bouncy castle. The music carries on uninterrupted. Kids on the studio floor and viewers up and down the country wonder exactly what is going on.

Only a few months later, though, a restless E was professing to be sick and bored of the material on Eels’s debut album Beautiful Freak. Consequently, the following year saw the release of Electro-Shock Blues, which – though retaining the shuffling scuffed-shoe beats of the Dust Brothers – proved to be an altogether darker and more inaccessible affair. It stares death straight in the face – unsurprising, given the passing of his father and several friends, and the suicide of his sister. The record deals with death not as a metaphor or abstraction, but rather as the literal and inevitable endpoint of life, the nemesis of the body, the dissolution of all flesh – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There are brief instances of lyrical wit, but it’s gallows humour of the blackest kind, the sort that would grace an episode of Six Feet Under. The only genuine moment of respite comes with the final track ‘PS You Rock My World’ and its insistence that however much you lose, you always have something to cling onto. It sounds an incongruous yet defiantly affirmative note at the end of the album’s funereal march, as if E the church organist has suddenly broken into Monty Python’s ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’. It makes the experience of listening to Electro-Shock Blues akin to being slowly buried alive only to have the lid of the coffin pried open at the very last moment.

Inspired by the death of E’s mother from cancer, Eels’s third album Daisies Of The Galaxy might have been expected to trace a similarly morbid trajectory, revisiting its predecessor’s stifling and claustrophobic ambience; after all, the subject had already been addressed in those terms in the track ‘Cancer For The Cure’ on Electro-Shock Blues. However, the reality is very different: the record is less a sombre mourning of death and more an evocative eulogy in honour of life.

The music is for the most part delicately wrought and unobtrusive, the influence of Dust Brother Michael Simpson and fellow Beck associate Mickey Petralia almost imperceptible, and so E’s lyrics naturally come to assume centre-stage. Refashioning autobiographical experiences into lyrical material runs the inevitable risk of alienating the listener, either by throwing up an impenetrable barrier or by making you feel uncomfortably like a voyeuristic curtain-twitcher, face pressed up against the glass in the pursuit of guilty and vicarious thrills. There is also the danger of simply coming across as being solipsistically self-obsessed. Daisies Of The Galaxy, though, despite the nature of much of its subject matter, manages to avoid these potential pitfalls.

The album’s highpoint is located midway through and blessed with the wryly comic title ‘It’s A Motherfucker’. Over a gentle piano refrain augmented by a subtle swell of strings, E articulates feelings of loss and dislocation in the wake of his mother’s death: “It’s a motherfucker / Getting through a Sunday / Talking to the walls / Just me again / But I won’t ever be the same”. As in so many great songs, simple words take on an almost unbearable resonance in their musical context. Perhaps tellingly, however, the most apt comparison is not musical at all, but poetic. Pieces by the British poets Tony Harrison and Blake Morrison spring to mind, in which they depict coming to terms with the loss of a parent with an equal measure of warmth and poignant sadness; indeed, ‘Packing Blankets’ is strikingly reminiscent of the fifth sonnet in Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s sequence ‘Clearances’, written in the wake of his mother’s death. Of course, ‘It’s A Motherfucker’ is about his mother, but for the listener it could just as easily be about a lover – despite the intensely personal quality of the song, you don’t feel neglected or excluded. A quite sublime distillation of crystal-clear emotion, it’s heartrendingly beautiful.

The natural companion-piece to ‘It’s A Motherfucker’ is album-closer proper ‘Selective Memory’ (the upbeat single ‘Mr E’s Beautiful Blues’ is tacked on almost as an afterthought), which is similarly skeletal and nakedly minimalistic in structure. The straining falsetto of the verse, as E reflects on his childhood need for motherly reassurance and security, gives way to a plaintive chorus: “I wish I could remember / But my selective memory / Won’t let me”. Touchingly tender, it’s the sort of song that could leave even John Lydon with a lump in his throat.

But with Daisies Of The Galaxy there are delights at every turn, and for the most part the album is characterised by a remarkable levity of tone and spirit. The appropriately chirpy ‘I Like Birds’, with its refrain “If you’re small and on a search / I’ve got a feeder for you to perch on”, simultaneously articulates a sense of joyous self-satisfaction and a devil-may-care attitude towards the mean-mindedness of others, while the reverie of youthful romance ‘Jeannie’s Diary’ finds E singing wistfully “I don’t have a chance of writing the book / I just wanna be a page / In Jeannie’s diary / One single page”.

Elsewhere E continues to delight in his self-appointed role as an urban poet, his talents in this respect having been showcased first on ‘Susan’s House’ from Beautiful Freak. ‘Grace Kelly Blues’, ‘Wooden Nickels’ and ‘The Sound Of Fear’ all testify to his acute observance of and interest in the minutiae of mundane everyday life, and to his ability to breathe humanity into even the most desolate of landscapes. The title metaphor of one track captures this aspect of the record perfectly: ‘A Daisy Through Concrete’. On ‘Something Is Sacred’ E even imagines the prospect of his own destitution; this potentially bleak vision, though, is shot through with self-deprecating humour (“On a rainy day / While I wear newspapers for pants / And a T-shirt that says ‘Damn I’m good’”) and finally winds up as an affirmation of faith and love – “On a rainy day / And as the world will blow to bits / I’ll cradle you and hold you tight”.

And that’s Daisies Of The Galaxy in a nutshell: sometimes rummaging around in the dark, but always moving towards the light. It’s about death, but more often about life. It’s about loss, but more often about love. And it’s a very special collection of songs indeed.


By: Ben Woolhead
Published on: 2003-09-01
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