Eels – Electro-Shock Blues (1998)
Well, if you’re feeling a bit down, I suggest that you give this album a wide berth because, although there are plenty of examples of Mark ‘E’ Everett’s wit and humour here and many wonderful, beautiful moments on “Electro-Shock Blues”, this is an album completely overshadowed by tragic events in his life: the suicide of his sister Elizabeth and the slow death of his Mother, Nancy, who succumbed to lung cancer. The title of the album itself refers to the therapy his sister received whilst institutionalised. So, I think it is fair to say that if you’re feeling emotionally fragile, this may not be the best music to play to help you through it. To describe this as a “difficult second album” is an understatement. However, rather than it simply being difficult for Eels to follow a successful début with a second of equal quality, it’s doubly difficult for the listener to appreciate this without a lot of hard work and the absorption of some very uncomfortable and deeply personal lyrics. It’s certainly an excellent album, but it’s considerably different from their first and takes quite a few plays to be able to appreciate it fully and to see past the darkness. I could understand anybody who enjoyed “Beautiful Freak” listening to this once and deciding that it’s not for them. However, for those who decide to persevere, there is a rather special album here just waiting to be discovered.
The album begins with the pared-down “Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor” which is based on some of the final entries in his sister’s diary and the sombre, personal feel continues from that stark opener. Even the more accessible, catchier tracks are a little uncommercial. “Cancer For The Cure” is a moody jazz shuffle with a disturbing theme (sample lyric: “And Father knows best/about suicide and smack”) and “Hospital Food” sounds very much like Massachusetts jazz-fusion trio Morphine with some bizarre lyrics to match. The first track that resembles anything like the material that made “Beautiful Freak” such a success is “My Descent Into Madness” with some lovely string phrases and an uplifting musical feel, totally contrary to the subject matter. With its jaunty beat and harpsichord riff, “Last Stop: This Town” could have been lifted straight from their début and is the closest thing here to being a radio-friendly hit, but its darkness is well hidden, as the still directly addresses the suicide of his sister. The gentle, rather pretty “Baby Genius” was written about E’s quantum physicist Father, but the lyrics are opaque and it’s difficult to tell exactly what he is trying to say.
One of my very favourite tracks on the album is “Climbing To The Moon”, a truly beautiful track about refusing to be dragged down by the trauma and tragedy of his then current life. “Dead Of Winter” however, is difficult to listen to for anybody who has lost somebody they love from cancer as there are specific references that people will recognise and it will surely remind them of a time in their life they would probably rather forget. I suppose that is the mark of a fantastic piece of art, something that can instil such feelings in you. “The Medication Is Wearing Off”, about Elizabeth, is also a stunning piece of work, but the sadness of the lyrics juxtaposed with the beauty of the music is almost unbearably poignant. The final track, “P.S. You Rock My World” is the much needed ray of light and is a very welcome postscript to the whole album when after all the death in his life, Mark decides that “maybe it’s time to live”. It isn’t the greatest piece of music on the album, but it works and provides relief and a little hope to the listener.
It’s very difficult to surmise quite how I feel about “Electro-Shock Blues”. At the time, I heard it and dismissed it after a couple of listens as a piece of work that just couldn’t compare with “Beautiful Freak”, an album that I considered (and still consider) a work of genius. However, I have listened to “Electro-Shock Blues” a lot recently, discovered exactly what it is about and have been completely won over by the depth of the writing, the emotion invested into it and Everett’s frankness and honesty. Much of the subject matter is uncomfortable, deeply sad and, at times, you almost feel as if you are intruding into his grief by listening, but, although I am no expert, I imagine that there was therapeutic value in writing and recording this album and he has certainly created something with a very high artistic value as a result. It’s that artistic value that makes me want to give this piece of work full marks, but – if I’m completely honest about it – it is, musically, a lesser album than “Beautiful Freak”, is not quite as enjoyable overall and it really does take a lot of time, energy and emotion to fully understand and appreciate. Some parts of it are undeniably magnificent, others don’t quite hit the mark. In my opinion, it’s a fractured work of flawed genius but, considering the loss and pain Mark went through, I think the flaws and more underwhelming moments are both understandable and forgiveable. Personally speaking, I think it’s an astonishing piece of work and I can appreciate why it is many Eels fans’ favourite album, but I more than understand why it may not be for everybody as well, even those who enjoy a lot of the band’s other work.