It may have occurred by accident or it may have happened by design but, regardless, few alt-rock albums made in the late Nineties (a.k.a. the peak of the compact disc’s reign as the recorded music format of choice) were so ideally suited to being pressed on vinyl as Eels‘ Electro-Shock Blues. The pacing of the music and the way the album develops feels like it was made for the medium; each side of this two-plate offering features four tracks and each represents a different movement through the death of Eels’ lead singer Mark Everett’s sister Liz from discovery (of Liz’s suicide and funeral) to disbelief to depression to a final resolution which is very ‘Eels’ in that the damage done has left a mark, but there is still enough warmth and hope left to survive and find a way to move on. The way it works is phenomenal and can make a fan for life of anyone who knows loss intimately.
Not unlike the nature of death itself, Electro-Shock Blues‘ A-side just sort of collapses into the event itself as “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor” carefully and delicately imagines how the character may have expired (“Laying on the bathroom floor/ Kitty licks my cheek once more/ And i could try/ But waking up is harder when you wanna die”) over a worrisome, muted, Danny Elfman-esque backdrop which is simultaneously gentle, delicate and gruesome. Listeners, for their part, will find the juxtaposition of light and dark hypnotizing; the thought process about the song contrasted by the subject matter and delivery feels almost shameful (well, enjoying it does), but exciting too. That sense of right and wrong being cast ever-so-slightly out of synch and focus continues as a heavy beat drives a funeral procession through “Going To Your Funeral” before managing to play both sinfully upbeat as well as sinfully ironic through “Cancer for The Cure” (check out the crosswired sense and imagery in lyrics like “The kids are diggin’ up a brand new hole/ Where to put the deadbeat mom/ Grandpa’s happy watching video porn/ With the closed-caption on/ And father knows best/ About suicide and smack/ Well, hee hee hee,” especially when they’re strapped to an upbeat, pop-rock progression, as they are here), which all makes “My Descent Into Madness” – with its sort of sad ‘la la la’ stock ballad sound that much more surreal. At every turn here, Everett always has a hook laced in somewhere – be it musical or lyrical – which keeps listeners engaged and hanging on every word; anyone listening can feel the darkness Everett feels here.
…And they’ll feel the chills which aerate through Side Two of the album, as soon as the needle sinks into it. After “3 Speed” sees Everett regress a bit and play the role of his sister for a little less than three minutes, “Hospital Food” begins playing listeners’ heart strings as it growls petulantly and a sax lurks around the song’s edges, but still conjures a whole lot of catharsis behind the words “Yesterday was suckin’ and/ Tomorrow’s looking bad/ Who knew that today/ Was the only thing I had.”
The only way to appropriately qualify “Hospital Food” is to call it unsettling, but it’s only a shade of the ‘unsettling’ that the album’s title track presents immediately after it. Lyrics like “Feeling scared today/ Write down ‘I’m okay’/ A hundred times the doctors say/ I am OK/ I am OK/ I’m not okay” are only the beginning of the heartfelt adieu that “Electro-Shock Blues” bids to the singer’s sister, and it’s awfully hard to not fall right under its spell and turn a darker shade of gray along with it.
That darker shade of gray also colors “Efil’s End” to close out the B-side of Electro-Shock Blues and, if any listener wasn’t sure how bizarre Mark Everett could get in this little psychodrama, all the hints which point the way power the C-side of the album. There, after revisiting “Going To Your Funeral” for a part two (which feels weird in and of itself), “Last Stop: This Town” splits the difference no one realized could be split and gets ever-so-slightly brighter musically and positively fatalist, lyrically. There, listeners just won’t know how to feel as a harpsichord supports lines like “You’re dead, but the world keeps spinning/ Take a spin through the world you left/ It’s getting dark a little too early/ Are you missing the dearly bereft?”
It’s not hard to chuckle at “Last Stop,” courage wants to laugh. Courage wants to laugh and, as a matter of sanity salvation, so do listeners; thematically, the song is only inches shy of macabre, yet it’s also presented in a manner which will lighten moods at first, but gets progressively lighter as programmed beats push the song along, electric guitars chug through the bridge to give it a little power, and a couple of extra voices chime in with some “Get on down” goodness to get a few extra grins. This awakening (and it really is that) announces that Eels’ dark night of the soul has almost reached a new dawn. “Baby Genius” continues on the ‘new beginnings’ thread and finally starts looking up, and “Climbing To The Moon” physically removes all doubt – hearing how this side develops never ceases to be elating and provides all the energy listeners might need to want to flip the second plate in this set for its’ final act.
Historically speaking, concept albums always begin to falter a bit in the twilight of their running. That often has to do with the fact that a denouement is never easy to write; even with a hard end to a story cleaning up the loose ends left dangling is never easy. The final side of the Electro-Shock Blues vinyl reissue fits the aforementioned paradigm to a ‘T,’ but still manages to offer a satisfying conclusion by leaving those who have gone front-to-back with the set with warm and full hearts – even though the focus of the D-side isn’t as clear as it was everywhere else. Here, after “Ant Farm” sort of spins out a vibe completely unlike any other found on the album (lines like “Walk down the street/ I’m thinking:
Look at all the ants in a farm/ I’ve got a sad-hearted feeling/ To harm” feel completely unique to this song), “Dead of Winter” blows one last chill through listeners before it digresses in the most anthemic possible way (it’s hard not to smirk knowingly as “The Medication Is Wearing Off” swings through) before closing on the highest note an album centered around tragedy could possibly hope to with “P.S. You Rock My World.” There, just as John Lennon did on Plastic Ono Band, Mark Everett makes it obvious that, while he’s been down, there is something to look up for in the album’s final steps; he has mourned and now he’s bidding his darkness farewell.
And that’s where the record ends, Taken as a whole – from front to back – no listener will deny that Electro-Shock Blues features some tremendously dark moments, but they will doggedly (and rightly) deny that the album is only dark. In fact, it’s very life-affirming; the bright moments far outshine the dim and, in the end, listeners will find that they feel good about the experience – not bad.
(Geffen/Universal Music Enterprises)
Ground Control Magazine – Eels discography review (Part One)
Ground Control Magazine – Eels discography review (Part Two)
Ground Control Magazine – Mr. E’s Lucky Day In Hell – [Feature Article]