Beautiful Freak allows us to look back to a simpler world and wrap ourselves in the comfort of a more abstract form of gloom.
In the wake of the grunge phenomenon, angst began manifesting in other forms. In 1996, Mark Oliver Everett, who had spent the early ‘90s releasing solo albums under the moniker E, restored melody (and even preciousness) to those hollowed-out feelings of disenchanted youth. Through earnest—if a bit catch-all—songwriting and diversely precise instrumentation, Eels’ debut record, Beautiful Freak, encapsulated the moroseness of adolescence in retrospect (Everett was 33 at the time). In doing so, it harnessed the gloomy virtue of being an awkward outsider in an age of conformity.
While there’s something beautifully freakish about the group’s namesake serpentine fish, Everett and co-founding members Butch Norton and Tommy Walter dubbed their band “Eels” for more strategic reasons. Namely, they wanted Eels records to appear alongside E’s solo albums on the CD rack, although they would later realize that there was an Eagles-plus-Earth-Wind-and-Fire sized gap in that logic. Twenty years later, a look back at Eels’s debut record finds Everett as sullen as ever, but over arguably less profound matters than in later work. Early in the album, he recalls a relationship with an old girlfriend (“Susan’s House” and “Beautiful Freak”), sings of numbing pain and filling holes (“Novocaine for the Soul”) and weaves the lament of failed dreams (“Rags to Rags”). There’s metaphoric imagery of inclement weather in “My Beloved Monster” (who “wears a raincoat that has four sleeves”) and “Flower” (which is battered “in a hailstorm”). Later, he cranks the disillusionment up a notch with “Guest List,” as he bemoans not wearing the right clothes and not being one of the beautiful people.
Everett doesn’t reserve his dreary outlook for the troublesome young-adult years and their inherent superficiality, myriad changes and resulting angst. He goes all the way back to the womb. The cruelty of birth is a recurring theme on Beautiful Freak, as on “Flower” Everett sings, “When I came into this world they slapped me/ And every day since then I’m slapped again.” He puts forth literal sad bastard music on “Your Lucky Day in Hell,” which, despite a lively enough beat and airy vocals, finds Everett’s narrator introducing the song with the line, “Mama gripped onto the milkman’s hand/ And then she finally gave birth.”
Family would play a much larger role in Everett’s later work than it did up until this point, even though, at the time of Beautiful Freak’s release, he’d already experienced the death of a parent. At the age of 19, he was the first to find the body of his father—famed scientist Hugh Everett III, who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics—who had died of a heart attack. Between the release of Beautiful Freak and Eels’ sophomore effort, Everett would endure the loss of both his mother from lung cancer and his sister from suicide. That makes 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues the quintessential Eels album— it was inspired by these profound losses and by his sister’s struggles with mental illness and institutionalization—and leaves Beautiful Freak as a promising and enjoyable debut that nevertheless lacked a certain level of substance.
Songs like “Mental” are a good example of this. Everett starts off with clichés of “It’s like I dressed up in my mama’s clothing/ It’s like I’m talking to a voice that doesn’t exist” before, in the chorus, he cites that he’s not actually crazy like everyone says but rather just “not amused by it all.” This forced sense of detachment persists in Everett’s lyrics throughout this album, and that’s largely a testament to its era. Just look at movies like Office Space and American Beauty that came out several years later. In the late ’90s, it was all the rage to fantasize about calling “bullshit” on the vapidity of the American Dream (which, as Everett sings in “Rags to Rags,” doesn’t “mean a fucking thing.”). You can see this fixation on revealing façades elsewhere. In “Susan’s House,” a strange second single that somehow charted in the Top 10 in the U.K., his voice strains to drive home the ugliness of the picture he’s painting about a crazy old woman breaking bottles or a dead youth stripped naked by paramedics after being killed by a bullet to the forehead. Such a mental image was far more potent in the pre-Columbine ‘90s, but it’s no less heavy-handed.
Eels’ star would rise even as its non-Everett founding members eventually fell by the wayside. Walter quit before Electro-Shock Blues, citing in interviews that Everett was lousy to work with. Meanwhile, Norton stuck around until 2003, allowing him to be involved with Eels most notable output. The youthful disenchantment on Beautiful Freak was short-lived, as by 2001 “My Beloved Monster” became part of the very much enchanted Shrek universe. Tragedy would again befall Everett’s family when a cousin died on 9/11 in a plane that eerily struck the portion of the Pentagon where his late father once worked. Everett’s influence would plateau even as his approach admirably shifted gears from project to project; he even managed to fire out five albums from 2009-2014. Most recently, his music has evolved into ruminations about aging, lost opportunities and loneliness, the kind of stuff you’d expect from a 53-year-old who has endured a lot in his life. While Beautiful Freak may largely be an artifact of its time, it’s a record that allows us to look back to a simpler world and wrap ourselves in the comfort of a more abstract form of gloom.