What can you say about a musician who turns his appalling real-life grief into artfully kooky alterna-rock?...
WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A musician who turns his appalling real-life grief into artfully kooky alterna-rock? Is this courageous emotional honesty, distastefully voyeuristic public therapy or grotesquely cynical marketing of private pain?
For such is the backdrop to Mark ‘E’ Everett’s second album, a jarringly direct yet oddly playful meditation by the Eels mainman on his sister’s suicide, his mother’s terminal cancer and the early deaths of several friends. Never before have the words ‘funeral’ and ‘suicide’ appeared so abundantly on an album, nor with so much tragic weight.
Leaving ethical qualms aside for a moment, ‘Electro Shock Blues’ is first and foremost a pop artefact and must be judged in pop terms. As such, it lacks the Weezer-meets-Beck immediacy of the band’s 1997 debut album, ‘Beautiful Freaks’. There is no ‘Novocaine For The Soul’ here, but there is an ‘answer’ to that blissed-out Top Five smash called ‘The Medication Is Wearing Off’, in which painful feelings start returning through an opiated haze of soothing melody.
The album’s first half is undeniably post-Radiohead, a symphonic suite of celestial sparkles and falsetto sighs, weeping strings and processed blues. Everett pays tribute to his dead sister with the gently traumatic ‘Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor’: “[I]My name’s Elizabeth/My life is shit and piss”[/I]. He then addresses his mother’s disease in ‘Cancer For The Cure’, a gnashing stream of consciousness full of half-baked observations: [I]”Courtney needs love/And so do I”.[/I] Feeble stuff, mostly, and oddly passionless considering the subject matter.
But somewhere midway through these 16 tracks, this gimmicky sense of distance falls away and we hear just the bummed-out Tom Waits shuffle of ‘Hospital Food’, followed by the title track’s Satie-esque piano motifs and spare, desolate vocals. Here, Everett carves an almost unbroken run of gruff, heartfelt, achingly tender meditations on mortality and loss. ‘Last Stop: This Town’ traces a lost soul’s final journey around the old neighbourhood, ‘Baby Genius’ bristles with sleigh bells and husky croaks, ‘Climbing To The Moon’ yearns and glistens like vintage Neil Young.
Finally, there is the skeletal strummer ‘PS You Rock My World’, in which hope rises from devastation in the form of love and a defiant lust for life: [I]”I was thinking about how everyone is dying/And maybe it’s time to live”.[/I] Here ‘Electro Shock Blues’ takes on the elegiac quality of ‘Everything Must Go’ recorded in strikingly similar circumstances, remember or Blake Morrison’s bravely harrowing memoir about his dad’s lingering death, [I]And When Did You Last See Your Father?[/I]. Here, finally, is a record which does not exploit its author’s pain but rather rages, with quiet dignity, against the dying of the light.
So what can you say about a musician who turns his real-life grief into oddly celebratory music? Just one thing: congratulations.