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Holy Hell! Electro-Shock Blues Turns 20

Holy Hell! Electro-Shock Blues Turns 20

Electro-Shock Blues is a definitive musical statement of having faith in the face of the absurd and hopeless.

This year, Mark Oliver Everett a.k.a. “E” aka “Eels” released The Deconstruction, his latest album—but as fans and listeners know, his self-deconstruction began a long time ago.

Twenty years ago, E had released two albums under his own name, underrated pop gems featuring what is now admittedly somewhat dated production, but which already show the unusual degree of melodic sophistication he possessed (think Aimee Mann, but darker).

But after being released from his label at the time, Polydor, he needed to try something different. So he formed a “real” band, gave himself a new name, signed to DreamWorks and released his Eels debut Beautiful Freak—an eccentric, stylistic mash-up of an album (like Odelay, but without the proto-hipster posturing) that managed to be a commercial success, spawn bona-fide hits and put Eels on the worldwide map. But none of this could have prepared anyone for his macabre follow-up.

First, the sad facts. In the wake of the first Eels’ album success, E’s mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer and his sister Elizabeth, who had struggled with mental health, commits suicide. These tragedies reopen the wound of an earlier trauma, the sudden death of E’s father when E was just an adolescent. With these memories and experiences flooding his consciousness, he made one of the most extraordinary recorded testaments to love and loss we have, a kind of Generation X Pet Sounds whose ambitions to face the mysteries of the universe are limitless.

Sonically, Electro-Shock Blues is a cabinet of curiosities, the musical equivalent of a Joseph Cornell box, full of small, half-broken objects that look like they were found in a long-forgotten drawer, conjuring whole worlds beyond their miniature scenes.

The deceptively sweet beginning of “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor” sets the tenor for the album, with the lyrics immediately pulling the rug out from underneath the listener: “Laying on the bathroom floor/ Kitty licks my cheek once more/ And I, I could try/ But waking up is harder when you wanna die.” Not to mention the brutal couplet that ends the song: “My name is Elizabeth/ My life is shit and piss.” Not an album for the faint of heart, in other words.

Starting with second track “Going to Your Funeral, Pt. 1,” the album at times has a swampy rawness reminiscent of Bone Machine-era Tom Waits, though E can’t help but have an ear for pop melody—the man has never met a pretty chorus he could resist, even on an angry, bitter song. The oddly funky “Cancer for the Cure,” reminiscent of Beck, is one of the few songs on the album that sounds like a hit, despite some horror movie-sound interlude interwoven with the more straightforward groove. This song pairs well with “Hospital Food,” later on in the mix, a jazzy, surrealist number that is even weirder when you consider the circumstances E must have been in when he conceived of it. Elsewhere, classical-inspired strings are married with hip-hop drums like on “My Descent into Madness,” the ironic “la la las” of which mirror the façade of attempting to put on a good face when you’d rather be doing anything but.

This song includes “Voices tell me I’m the shit,” an iconic line in an album full of them, lines that sound pretty funny taken out of context but are strangely heartbreaking in context—lines like “Life is funny, but not ha-ha funny,” from “3 Speed” or “Feeling scared today/ Write down: I am OK” from the title track, powered by a gorgeous piano sample that sounds like one of Aphex Twin’s Satie-inspired compositions.

We come to another interlude in “Going to Your Funeral, Part II,” a song that sounds anything but funereal, an instrumental composition with strings, clarinet and toy piano. This leads into “Last Stop: This Town,” an ebullient, beat-driven song (it even has DJ scratches!) written after E’s sister’s funeral that imagines her coming back to visit (inspired, apparently, by a vision of a ghost one of his neighbors had). Lines like “Why don’t we take a ride away up high through the neighborhood/ Up over the billboards and the factories and smoke” point to E’s ongoing ability to imagine his way beyond tragedy, and the humor and borderline ridiculousness of the song also offers an oddly moving testament to all the ways grief can be transmuted into creativity, humor, expression.

But perhaps the album’s most enduring song is “Climbing to the Moon,” a song about leaving the earth while being more firmly rooted in it than ever. It is in some ways one of the album’s most traditional songs in structure and arrangement, but also the most sublime, with a moving, haunting melody that is lifted into the ether by Jon Brion’s Chamberlin toward the end.

Closing out the album, the acoustic “Dead of Winter” addresses E’s mother’s imminent passing and E’s own feelings about being the only one left from the core of his family, which is taken up differently in “The Medication Is Wearing Off,” with its poignant final lines, “See this watch she gave me?/ Well it still ticks away.” The last song, “P.S. You Rock My World,” ends on a further optimistic note, with E confronting mortality but also accepting fate and the enduring power of love.

Electro-Shock Blues is a definitive musical statement of having faith in the face of the absurd and hopeless, a classic album by a songwriter who, no matter how grim things got, found in looking up at the sky and looking back down to earth a place he wished to keep inhabiting, a place where you can lose everything and still find yourself in the process.

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