Essential Classics: Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

With the release last week of The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, the eleventh album from Eels, now is the perfect time to take a closer look and examine their greatest work, Electro-Shock Blues.

Electro-Shock Blues was the follow-up to Eels’ debut album, Beautiful Freak, which is known mainly for the smash hit single “Novocaine for the Soul”.  That song would be both a blessing and a curse for the band, as it helped them break through to a wider audience (E had previously released two solo albums before adopting the “Eels” moniker, and while both records are good, they never received much commercial success), and was an effective calling card for the band’s style.  From E’s distinctive voice, to their often bitterly sarcastic take on life (the lyric “Jesus and his lawyer are coming back” is a great example of capturing that typical mid-90’s cynical detachment), to their focus on how to treat emotional pain (summed up perfectly in the title), “Novocaine” was in many ways representative of their style.  On the other hand, that meant a lifetime of dealing with expectations of playing the song every night on tour.  E’s approach of completely altering the style of the song each tour has been an effective remedy, varying between such drastic differences as the surf-rock version of the Electro-Shock tour or the withdrawn, restrained version of the With Strings tour, turning a rote performance into a surprising highlight each night.

All of this is to provide the background that Eels should have been in position to enjoy their new-found success.  Unfortunately, real life intervened as E was confronted with the deaths of his sister (suicide) and mother (lung cancer), among others, after the release of Beautiful Freak.  E worked through the feelings of being the last living member of his immediate family and channeled his grief into the production of Electro-Shock Blues, making it more than the stereotypical “difficult second album”.  The intentions are clear from the outset, with “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor”.  E uses his sister’s diary to give a harrowing look at her anguish as she struggled with mental illness (summed up with the concluding lines “My name is Elizabeth; my life is shit and piss.”), and backs the lyrics with a delicate, spare guitar and a ghostly backing choir.  The subject matter remains grim for the next few tracks, with “Going To Your Funeral Part I”, “Cancer for the Cure”, and “My Descent Into Madness”, but the tone of the music shifts to provide an effective counterpoint and cut against the seriousness of the topic.  “Funeral” has a slightly sinister ambiance, but is driven by a slow, grooving bass line; “Cancer for the Cure” is a goofy rave-up, complete with cheesy organ accents (a similar approach is taken with the jazzy “Hospital Food”); and “My Descent Into Madness” has an optimistic tone with fancy classical string flourishes and warm keyboards, which provide a sharp comment on the lyrics covering medically-induced happiness courtesy of institutionalization (“Come visit me at eight o’clock, and then you’ll see how I’m not the crazy one”).

The album reaches a turning point with the song “Last Stop: This Town”, as E copes with his loss by imagining flying above the city with his deceased sister.  He begins by showing her the world that she has left behind, and then the distortion kicks in with some turntable scratches, as they travel together on an emotional journey (a physical manifestation of the inner turmoil–“taking a spin through the neighborhood, the neighbors scream, ‘What are you talking about?,’ cause they don’t know how to let you in, and I can’t let you out”).  There is a moment of regret, when E asks, “Can you take me where you’re going if you’re never coming back?”  However, by the end of the song he’s content to let her go, as indicated by the brighter tone of his vocals in the last chorus.

The other peak on the album is the tender “Climbing to the Moon”, as E recounts a visit with his sister while she was institutionalized.  The lyrics by themselves are heart-breaking, but the music often underscores key emotional components that only add to their emotional impact.  Subtle touches like airy synths after “Got a sky that looks like heaven” and a country-tinged, lower-register guitar figure after “Got an earth that looks like shit” help accentuate the metaphors.  Sometimes these details work in the opposite way, providing an ironic element; as E sings about climbing to the moon, the chords gradually descend with the lyrics “Got my foot on the ladder”.  The entire chord progression in the chorus is naturally circular and begs repetition, emphasizing the futility of the task of literally climbing to the moon.  Yet the hopeful tone and lyrics show that it’s not worth it to be bogged down in the hopelessness of the situation, but to continually press ahead.

Eels closes the album with songs that show E contemplating how to move ahead.  “The Medication is Wearing Off” sees E facing the death of his mother with the knowledge that even though she’s gone, life still moves forward, as evidenced by the metaphor of his mother’s watch that keeps ticking.  That doesn’t mean that he is finished grieving–“The medication’s wearing off–gonna hurt a little, not a lot” and “Sunrise on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado, I think ‘What the hell do I do now–watch the day disintegrate, so I can stay up late and wait?'” indicate otherwise.  But he knows he has to continue, and the slight repeating guitar lick is a gentle reminder.  E adds an upbeat postscript (literally) with “P.S., You Work My World”, as he realizes that even if the outside world is falling apart and he has no idea what he should do, that “maybe it’s time to live.”

As a whole, the album is a perfect encapsulation of all the various emotions that come with the grieving process, all backed by delicate instrumentation that never overwhelms the listener, and balanced with key moments of levity.  It’s powerful without ever being overbearing, and catchy while still inviting closer scrutiny.  It may not have had the cultural impact that other records covering the same territory did, but I’d argue that it did so in a far more effective manner.  With Electro-Shock Blues, Eels proved that not only were they not a one-hit wonder, but that they were great artists worth following, even as their career would go on for decades.

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