Eels – Beautiful Freak (1996)
Without a doubt, this is a life and taste changing album and I first heard this album when I was working at a music store. One of the sales assistants put it on the shop’s stereo system and it completely stopped me in my tracks. I struggled to concentrate on what I was doing as it was like nothing else I’d ever heard before and, many years later, it still a similar effect. This is one of those unique pieces of work, of genius, that seems to come out of nowhere, has a profound effect on your world and is never replicated by anybody again. Of course, Mark ‘E’ Everett and Eels (which have undergone a few line-up changes with E being the only ever-present) have gone on to produce a varied, but altogether rather incredible, body of work, but this, for me, remains his most astonishing, vital and exemplary album.
Everett’s major label début as Eels has a rather battered, bruised, dirty and downtrodden feel to it, his voice is weary and defeated and there are so many references to the bleak and often cruel, violent world we inhabit, but it is also a magnificently beautiful slice of indie-pop and the darkness running throughout the album always has little chinks of light which sometimes become dazzling and all-encompassing. You could describe most of this album as “radio friendly” and yet it all has an edge which means that it couldn’t really be thought of as commercial. It kicks off with “Novocaine For The Soul”, the song which made most people sit up and notice. The verses are dark and menacing, the chorus powerful, but dreamy; it is a near-perfect piece of indie-pop. The opening line of the song (and album), “Life is hard/and so am I/You’d better give me something/so I don’t die” is an immediate attention-grabber. It’s not the best track on the album, in my opinion, but there is something utterly irresistible about it.
“Susan’s House” is another superb composition. Joining Everett as he takes a walk to his girlfriend’s house, the light, gentle piano motif is a beacon of light, of hopefulness while the stark beat underpins the verses as he negotiates his way through the streets, witnessing death, disagreements and dealers in a richly descriptive narrative. The excellent “Not Ready Yet” records the thoughts of someone holed up in their room, unable to face the outside world. The hesitancy, frustration and the mental illness are all expressed in a beautifully empathetic way. “Flower” is another of my picks (no pun intended) and the fragile, defeated nature of the music and lyrics compliment each other perfectly. “When I came into this world they slapped me/and everyday since then I’m slapped again”, E comments sadly, but there are glimmers of hope and strength, meaning that this is no simple pity party. There aren’t many better opening lines in songs than on the sublime “Lucky Day In Hell” which starts with “Mama gripped onto the milkman’s hand/and then she finally gave birth” and also contains the very funny “Waking up with an ugly face/Winston Churchill in drag”. I could go on. Virtually every song is a gem.
In fact, this is one of those truly remarkable albums where you could almost write an essay on each song, let alone attempting to surmise the whole collection of songs in just a few paragraphs. I have only just touched on some of my personal favourites, but there isn’t a sub-par song on this album. “Rags To Rags”, “Beautiful Freak”, “Spunky”… all simply brilliant. One of the reasons this album is something truly special is the inventiveness, the creativity of the arrangements, the instrumentation and the many sonic and emotional textures which run throughout “Beautiful Freak”. The lyrics are also outstanding. This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest albums to have ever been released and I wouldn’t hesitate, for a moment, to call it as a masterpiece. Absolutely essential.