Eels
Electro-Shock Blues (1998)
Dreamworks

Death is arguably the most unattractive and least-used subject in popular music. But E, Eels’s frontman and primary creative force, doesn’t care. On Electro-Shock Blues, he delivers 16 tracks that unremittingly attack the topic of mortality. Writing about the loss of loved ones came naturally to E when he created the album; he lost his father at a young age, his sister committed suicide and, during the recording of the album, his mother lost a long battle with cancer. Instead of ignoring the passing of his entire immediate family, E confronted the issue head-on. As a result, he made a cathartic masterpiece that becomes more captivating, enchanting and breathtaking with each listen.

Opener “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor” acts as a suicide note, read from perspective. The line “My name is Elizabeth / My life is shit and piss” is tough to swallow, but does a fine job setting a dreadfully dismal tone.

“Going to Your Funeral, Pt. 1” follows with a deep, droning bass line backed by a bongo whose hollow sound reflects the void felt by all who attend the wake. Only two tracks into the album, E’s despondency is unbearably palpable.

“Cancer for the Cure” provides a cynical and sarcastic outlook on his mother’s condition. The mess of distorted guitars and electronic organ chords create a chaotic sound, appropriately setting the stage for the song “My Descent Into Madness,” where E admits to hearing voices in his head.

The deceptive “3 Speed” generates a simpler sound, employing a flute and twangy guitar as E exhibits the first glint of his wry sense of optimism, with one of the album’s most memorable lines: “Life is funny / But not ha ha funny / Peculiar I guess / You think I got it going my way / Then why am I such a fucking mess?”

But the song proves to be misleading, for the title track follows with its bleak depiction of E hitting rock bottom. His emotional instability is reflected in lines like “Feeling scared today … A hundred times the doctors say / I am OK … I’m not OK.” As the timid piano plods along, E mutters “Pink pill feels good / Finally understood,” and it’s apparent that he’s on the verge of a complete meltdown.

“Going to Your Funeral, Pt. 2” abandons the unbearably heavy tone and replaces it with a lighter feel, highlighted by lush xylophone and clarinet sounds. Maybe this radical and unexpected turnaround is a representation of the dramatic contrast between the ups and downs in E’s life. Maybe it’s showing the potency of the previously cited pink pills. The beginning is unclear, but E never looks back. He adopts a sanguine attitude that acts as the key ingredient in his rehabilitation, which is visible over the course of the second half of the album.

E decides to take comfort in a state of contained contemplation. “Climbing to the Moon” is a positive reflection on his sister’s suicide, and “Dead of Winter” follows suit as E accepts his mother’s prolonged battle with cancer. The closing track wins the awards for best song title and finest song on the album. “P.S. You Rock My World” is the breaking point when E finally admits, “Maybe it’s time to live.” Backed by a sweeping string section, the song’s declaration of life’s victory in the face of death highlights the great paradox that lies at the heart of Electro-Shock Blues. The idea that life can still be worth living in the face of so much suffering is unusually uplifting and brings the album to a triumphant close.

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