Eels - Electro-shock Blues
or 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.
"Suicide, cancer, heart attacks… death is the greatest American taboo since sex”
Mark “E” Everett
And so the tone is set via a pull-quote (NB: pull-quotes shall be my “thing” for this piece) that appears even more powerful than I could ever have imagined when centred, formatted and correctly credited to the main man of US post-grunge rockers, Eels. And if society was telling E to internalise the grief, pain and anguish caused by the recent loss of several family members (and close friends), then he clearly wasn’t listening.
Eels’ second album, Electro-shock Blues, deals almost exclusively with mortality and its wider implications on those Death leaves behind. Ever since 1992’s debut solo effort, A Man Called E, Mark Everett has shown little interest (and occasionally contempt) for the opinions of American society, so it’s little surprise that here too, he expects devoted silence and complete attention while he says what he has to say.
More surprising though, is that quite far removed from the debut Eels record, Beautiful Freak, Mark Everett does not wish to bemoan his misfortunes alone. Often criticised for the introverted, singular, and chronically adolescent nature of his songs, E shrewdly responds by sacking his band and hiring his (dead) family. With poetry in the sleeve from his grandmother (deceased), drawings by his father (found dead by a 19 year old E), and lyrics based on the writings of his sister (committed suicide on the eve of the Beautiful Freak launch), this record is arguably the most dysfunctional family affair since The Sopranos.
Now the only living member of his family (Everett’s mother died of lung cancer during the writing process for Electro-shock Blues), E made a conscious decision not to shy away from his bereavement, because anything else would just have been “fake”.
Mark “E” Everett
More specifically, album opener “Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor” sounds like that exact phone call. Stark, skeletal, fragmentary—E wastes no time in adopting the persona of his sister, deep in depression: “My name’s Elizabeth / My life is shit and piss”. Coming at the end of the song, one would expect such a charming couplet to act as the rug-being-pulled-from-under-the-listener’s feet, right? Wrong. Track two is entitled “Going To Your Funeral (Part I)”, and E is burying the sister we only just met.
From here on in the album is a journey in two very distinct parts, a concept album to those who don’t know its background, and a heartfelt telling of a tragic story to everybody else. Part One of the album offers decay, death, hopelessness and despair. While this may not sound all that appealing, E spends much of “Cancer For The Cure” straddling his Wurlitzer, striving to regain control of its mad-dog tendencies, before sitting down with a beer and an electric guitar to deliver his most adolescent lyric yet: “You think I got it all going my way / Then why am I such a fucking mess?” on “3 Speed”.
Sure, much of Electro-shock Blues utilises the timeworn, woe-is-me outlook that so many alt. rock acts have done to death, but the very nature of such a bad pun seems finally to make this stance justified. And just as Everett wins approval for his complaints, he shape-shifts again: Part Two (marked by the summery, awakening vibe of “Going To Your Funeral Part II”) is the sound of E, undeniably and unequivocally growing up.
The lead single from the album, “Last Stop: This Town”, is the sound of a man rebuilding his life, reaching the crossroads that the character in the song’s accompanying cartoon does, and moving on down the right path. He’s coming to terms with loss “You’re dead, but the world keeps spinning”, and how better to do this than to rock out? Just like the old days.
However, the second half of Electro-shock Blues is largely acoustic, and as such lends itself to much-needed, and mostly optimistic reflection. “Climbing To The Moon” epitomises this, and delivers the most moving, spine-tingling chords of the set. Butch (now drummer with Tracy Chapman) was the only other musician regularly employed on the album, and here he shakes his tambourine in sympathy, and while it may not sound it, it is very special indeed.
“The Medication Is Wearing Off” delivers an antidote to Beautiful Freak’s “Novocaine For The Soul”, before E makes the final, decisive move to step out of his front door and go into town again. He documents the experience in “P.S. You Rock My World”, which is all sweeping strings and observations. E confronts death, as he has for the last three-quarters of an hour, in the most direct and undiluted way, and concludes dryly “Maybe it’s time to live”. And thankfully, it is.
Electro-shock Blues is an album that reeks of classic on all levels: scene is set, tone established, problem arisen, grappled, fought (nearly lost) and eventually— joyously—overcome. Sequencing isn’t everything of course, but it’s made all the more powerful by the strength of the material within. I’m not the only one who noticed, not by a long shot:
Dom Passantino, Stylus Magazine
And who can argue with that?
By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2004-03-30