"And Maybe It's Time To Live"
The "Cancer Rock" of Eels
photo from the Official Eels site
by Luis Sanchez
"A lot of people say to me, ‘E, you look a little sad' . . . But I feel pretty happy right now."
-Mark Oliver "E" Everett, 12 August 2003
One of the most exciting concerts I have been to took place on 12 August 2003 at a very modest-sized venue in trendy Tempe, Arizona. The band was Eels. The audience was quite small, but that didn't stop Eels from rocking that tiny theatre like it was a sold-out stadium. I'd been a casual fan of Eels for about a year, the brilliant Electro-shock Blues being my proper introduction. So while I arrived at the show not knowing what to expect, I left certain that it was one of the best I'd ever witnessed: oddly welcoming, straight-up pop-rock; refreshingly unpretentious; somehow familiar and new. One thing in particular I won't forget: during the latter half of the song, "Love of the Loveless," Eels leader, a man called "E," delivered a curiously affecting rock homily. It was about accepting the nature of life in this cruel world, while holding tight to those things that get you by— things like small, mundane pleasures and moments of self-acceptance. It was oddly profound, but not in an obvious way. It wasn't just what E said, but also the context and manner in which he said it. There he stood on stage with a guitar and mirrored sunglasses, looking very rock ‘n' roll, and yet his voice, scarred and throaty, sounded very fatherly and wise. It just seemed odd to me that this "rock star" carried such an aura of maturity and wisdom, and that it didn't undermine the power of his music. Neither preachy nor ironic, his words floated over the music with a particular gravity. Our hero believed what he was uttering.
After the concert, I became obsessed with how much the performance of that one song affected me, and it wasn't long before I had tracked down and intimately acquainted myself with the entire Eels catalogue. I needed to hear more of this music and understand where this guy was coming from. Beyond the peculiar surface, just waiting to be discovered, there is a wealth of musical pleasure and insight of someone who has wrestled with life in way few in his position would be willing share. E's unique expression of what it feels like to live in a confusing, unfriendly world, combined with the way he celebrates those times when getting out of bed is actually worth the bother, is something that deserves some recognition. And the following essay recounts this music lover's belief of why this is so.
This Rotten World?
As I implied above, the name Eels is misleading. It is basically a title that refers to the on-going music project of one gifted man, Mark Oliver Everett—known to many simply as, "E." Employing a group of rotating musicians and a couple of mainstays, Everett's work is what you might call a little "left-of-center," neither underground nor mainstream. Despite being signed to a major label (Dreamworks), and having songs on soundtracks for various high-profile films such as Shrek, The Grinch, American Beauty, and Disney's Holes, it is quite interesting how uninterested in high-profile "success" Everett seems to be. Eels albums have been characteristically released with little fanfare, and they are supported by very few singles. Therefore it is not surprising that Eels has a small but devoted cult following. The sound of Eels doesn't follow any particularly fashionable or youthful trends. However, having said that, the music is not "difficult." The aesthetics of it are not at all suffocating, and the songs quite often reach outward. You will not hear any ambitious lyrical phrases. Everett's clarity only strengthens the power of his words. Neither will you hear any revolutionary break with form. On the contrary, much of the music's muscle is provided by a canny sense of classic pop structures and an equally brilliant sense of studio production. In fact, Everett's appreciation for good pop music is evidenced by the fact that he has been known to cover songs by likes of Madonna, Prince, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and even Missy Elliot, during live shows. Still, he has his own, unique voice.
I suppose you could—as I have discovered many have done—characterize the music as eccentric, depressing, the work of a self-indulgent, reclusive misanthrope. But this would be a lazy misinterpretation. True, it's not all rainbows and unicorns. But life is not all rainbows and unicorns. True, Everett devotes a good amount of record space singing about sadness, usually his own. But nowhere in his work can I hear solicitation for pity. His concern is for those everyday slices of life, the very tangible fears, anxieties, and passions of real people. And contrary to what some have said, a large part of the music's charm derives from the fact that Everett tempers his explorations of gloom and doom with a peculiar sense of humor, irony, and, yes, happiness.
Fitting In With The Misfits
The first Eels album, Beautiful Freak (1996), establishes certain musical elements and themes which would be explored in more depth on subsequent Eels records. This album consists mainly of guitar-based pop-rock that incorporates layers of production that give it an arty sound. Its lyrics focus on several themes, including coming to grips with an unkind world, the difficulty of self-acceptance, and a reach for faith. However, as the title suggests, the overarching theme would be that of the misfit and the difficulty of self-love.
Take the first song on the record, "Novocaine for the Soul." Here, we have a catchy pop song about the darkness of depression and feeling out of place, which utilizes, among other things, a jazzy beat, what sounds like a children's xylophone, and a dreamy string arrangement. In his characteristic deadpan, Everett declares, "Life is hard / and so am I / you better give me something / so I don't die." His voice always has the texture of someone who might have gone slightly overboard with some primal scream therapy. But don't be fooled by the quirky delivery or the playful sounds: he means it when he sings, "This paint-by-numbers life is fucking with my head / once again." To date, this song remains the one and only Eels "hit," thanks to its novel production and catchy groove.
But as the rest of the album proves, the music of Eels is more than novel. Everett flexes his guitar muscle on "Mental," a groovy rocker in which he shouts, "They say I'm mental, but I'm just confused / they say I'm mental, but I've been abused / they say I'm mental, ‘cause I'm not amused by it all." But wallowing in darkness doesn't completely satisfy him. The songs on Beautiful Freak aim for a balanced picture of life. The title track is a lilting love song for the archetypal misfit, which exhorts self-acceptance. "Flower" is a gentle petition addressed to God, complete with church choir and banjo, and it lyrics hint at a budding philosophy: "When I came into this world, they slapped me / and everyday since then, I'm slapped again / tomorrow's king, an unsightly coward / you see, I know I'm gonna win." Those last two lines express a quiet resolve which would be brilliantly developed on the next Eels album and would underwrite Everett's subsequent work.
"Cancer Rock" and Beyond
1998's follow-up, Electro-shock Blues, has to be one of the best, largely unnoticed records of the ‘90's. Its tenor is most obviously dictated by the terminal illness of Everett's mother. Having lost his father (the renowned quantum physicist, Dr. Hugh Everett III, responsible for the Many Worlds Theory and the concept of parallel universes) to a heart-attack when he was just 19, Everett would eventually become very familiar with loss. The death of his father was followed the loss of his mentally-ill sister, Elizabeth, to suicide in 1996, and in the period that immediately preceded Electro-shock Blues, his mother would lose a long battle with lung cancer. Thus, Everett—now in his thirties—would remain the only surviving member of his family.
On Electro-shock Blues, he doesn't merely address his pain; he wages a full-scale assault on it, celebrates it, and negotiates a fair resolution. In the press, Everett would characterize its sound, without irony, as "cancer rock." I would characterize its sound as that of a post-modern, artier Pet Sounds. Produced mainly by Everett, the album consists of sad songs about happiness and happy songs about sadness. It incorporates unusual instrumentation, eccentric sound collages, melodies that evoke childhood memories, athletic percussion, hip-hop beats, and lush layers of blissfully pleasant strings. To help achieve its dark, warm aura, he even bravely used excerpts from his sister's diary for lyrics and drawings from his father's notebooks for the album's artwork. However you choose to characterize it, Electro-shock Blues takes pop music to places and depths it characteristically avoids.
The album begins with "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor," a foreboding, languorous track which has Everett strumming guitar, singing in the persona of his troubled sister: "My name's Elizabeth / my life is shit and piss." Such unapologetic frankness bleeds through the entire album. In the richly-textured "Cancer for the Cure," with its abrasive chainsaw loops and nervous beat, you can hear the frustration and anger of someone on a first-name basis with terminal illness. "My Descent Into Madness" is another richly-textured song about life in a mental hospital, which makes deft use of a groovy bass line, sleigh bells, and sampled strings. "Hospital Food" is a darkly-funny jazz number, while the jagged lullaby, "Baby Genius," evokes an unresolved disconnect between Everett and his famous father. For the way it uses a stripped, minimal arrangement to monumental effect, the title song is of particular note. Basically consisting of a looped piano motive and Everett's tired voice, "Electro-shock Blues" is the most honest and beautiful articulation of depression you might ever hear in a pop song. The candor with which he delivers the following lyrics is absolutely fierce: "Feeling scared today / write down, ‘I am okay'/ a hundred times, the doctors say / I am okay / I am okay / I'm not okay."
Whereas the earlier tracks on the album have a more serrated aesthetic, the latter songs are smoother. The spacey "Climbing to the Moon" is a delicate declaration of survival in the midst of grief, with a spiritual climax punctuated by a feathery flute. The penultimate song on the album, "The Medication Is Wearing Off,"—a thematic extension of "Novacaine for the Soul"?—finds Everett regaining his footing after numbing grief: "See this watch she gave me / well, it still ticks away / the days I'm claiming back for me / the medication is wearing off / gonna hurt not a little, a lot / keep on ticking, you're not licking me." These lyrics are supported by the comforting sounds of a steady snare backbeat, a magical xylophone, flute, and a piano which sounds like its strings are being plucked from the inside. The final song, "P.S. You Rock My World," with its pragmatic optimism, ends the album on a beautiful high. Backed by sweeping strings, gentle percussion and guitar, Everett sings, "Laying in bed tonight, I was thinking / and listening to all the dogs / and the sirens, and the shots / and how a careful man tries to dodge the bullets / while a happy man takes a walk / and maybe its time to live." Bloodied and bruised, our hero has chosen to survive. Don't numb your pain, he says, because you can't escape it. Feel it and wrestle it. He is much more interested in plowing through the muck that life puts in front of him, with quiet courage and anticipation for the wisdom to be gained. Everett has yet to top the breadth and ambition of this album.
Daises of the Galaxy quickly followed Electro-shock Blues in 1999. But despite its endearing quirkiness and peculiar sense of humor, it sounds mostly like an afterthought of its weighty predecessor. On this record, we find Everett revisiting his home, remembering his lost family and sorting their legacy. Consisting mostly of bittersweet ballads, the sound of Daisies of the Galaxy is decidedly thinner, more organic and domestic. Though not a poor album, it does lack the interesting tautness and more consistent verve of other Eels albums. It is the one I listen to the least.
The album opens with the breezy, "Grace Kelly Blues." Marching band horns and acoustic guitar combine with Everett's lyrics about small town life to evoke a warm, cozy sense of place. Lighter songs like "Packing Blankets" and the hilarious "Flyswatter" and "I Like Birds" work as affecting and playful meditations about getting on with life and the value of memories. The somber instrumental, "Estate Sale," effectively evokes the reticence in letting go of the past. One standout on this album is the sobering "It's a Motherfucker," a brilliantly understated piano-based ballad about the life-changing effects of grief. As Everett sings, "It's a motherfucker / how much I understand / feeling that you need someone / to take you by the hand / you won't ever be the same / you won't ever be the same," his voice enveloped by caressing strings, you don't dare doubt him. Following the title track from Electro-shock Blues, "It's a Motherfucker" is another example of Everett's gifted ability to use simplicity to achieve magnificent effect. But on the album's closer, the music takes on a more self-assured and positive tone. "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues" is a thick, head-bobbing pop song with a killer chorus: "Goddamn right, it's a beautiful day / uh-huh!" By ending the album with such a song, Everett explores a more playful sound and assumes a more confident posture; he has taken another step through hard times and is more mature for it. However, as the next album would prove, this doesn't mean he has lost his edge or that he has forgotten how to rock.
". . . but the souljacker can't get my soul"
In many ways, 2001's Souljacker revisits Everett's penchant for the macabre; but this time, the tone is tempered with a fresh faith in love (Everett was recently married) and the wisdom of someone who's been through hell and survived to tell the story. On this album, our hero explores his new take on life through the stories of curious, scuzzy characters—some fictional and some not so fictional—in danger of having their souls stolen by, well, "the souljacker." And if this isn't intriguing enough, Souljacker rocks and grooves like a mother. The gritty, muscular sound is no doubt influenced by enlisted co-writer/producer John Parish, of PJ Harvey fame.
The opening number, "Dog-faced Boy," is a tough, riff-driven rocker about a young lad with an unfortunate hair condition. On "Fresh Feeling," Everett grooves about the raptures of romantic love amidst hip-hop beats, sharp percussion, and a lush string arrangement that very nearly lifts you off the ground. "Bus Stop Boxer," pleads with its cold, murky textures, and tells the story of a person desperate for connection but whose only way of relating to others is through violence: "When I wake up in the morning / I'm too tired, too tired of being alone / so I get up and go downtown / and pick me out a little piece of ground / where I can prove something to the world / I can prove something to the world." The struggle in sustaining a personal faith and confronting demons is uniquely expressed in "Friendly Ghost," a fine tapestry of guitar, percussion, a looping whistle, and flute. Its phrases are classic: "If you're scared to die / you better not be scared to live / I've been carrying around a grudge / I think I better forgive / last night, I heard footsteps walking on the attic floor / I got up and I opened up the door / a friendly ghost / is all I need." "Souljacker part 1" is a gritty, wailing rocker about two trailer park misanthropes, Sally and Johnny. "Souljacker Part 2" is a sparse downer about survival which sounds very lo-fi and like it was recorded on a war field just after a battle; Everett tranquilly sings, "Souljacker can't get my soul / left my carcass with the worms and moles / souljacker can't get my soul / he can hang my neck from the old flagpole / but the souljacker can't get my soul." Dedicated to Everett's wife, the final song on the record, "What is this Note?," is a confrontational, punk-rock love song which somehow endears itself with repeated listening. As mentioned above, Souljacker explores soulless life through unsavory, mundane characters, and Everett's message is this: no matter how unfairly the world treats you, if you ignore what you do have, you run the risk of having your soul stolen.
Rock Hard Times
The fifth and most recent Eels album was released in 2003; Shootenanny! (a word made up by Everett that refers to the swelling gun violence in America), is a collection of pop-rock songs with a bluesy edge. There isn't really a unifying theme for this record, but there are some classic Everett compositions.
"All In A Day's Work" opens the album with a brutal riff . . . riff . . . riff! Everett draws the humor out of his misanthropy as he wails over fuzzy guitar, blues harmonica, and sax: "When I was boy at Sunday school / I told them all that they were fools / all in a day's work / to live and breathe, a site to see / and so it goes." A brilliant tune, that one is. "Saturday Morning" is pure pop-rock candy, celebrating those mornings as a kid when you woke up early and the world was your playground: "The parents are sleeping soundly / the neighbors are dead as wood / I'm gettin' up and comin' over / we gotta rock the neighborhood!" In this song, Everett goes falsetto for a couple of verses (always a pleasure), and nowhere else does he sound like he's having this much fun. At the other end of the spectrum, "Agony" is bluesy number that goes straight for the jugular: "Friends tellin' me / that maybe I need some psychiatric help / yeah, they're always so quick to tell you / just how to get on with it / but I look into the mirror / and all I see is age, fear, and agony." Such stiff lyrics are made stiffer as a wailing guitar battles with firecracker drumbeats. Our hero still gets sad, but, with "Agony," he solidifies his ability to relate depression with such fidelity.
But the most poignant song on Shootenanny! is probably "Love of the Loveless," a shiny gem for all the loners of the world. Over programmed beats and a teetering bass line, Everett raps, "Don't got a lot of time / don't give a damn / don't tell me what to do / I am the man / if there's a God up there / something above / God shine your light down here / shine on the love / love of the loveless." Trickling guitar and keyboard motives build the song into a warm and steady sing-along. In some interesting ways, Everett's subtle wisdom reaches a pinnacle here: "Don't have too many friends / never felt at home / always been my own man / pretty much alone / I know how to get through / and when push comes to shove / I got something that you need / I got the love / the love of the loveless." He doesn't have all the answers, but Everett understands how false it is to believe that the world will give you the love you crave. For better or for worse, and with a little help from "something above," you're going to have to learn to love yourself.
And this brings me back to that night in Arizona. Everett's speech during the performance of "Love of the Loveless" worked because he knew what he was talking about. Yet the brilliance of that night's show was that you could both hear and see how much Everett believed in the power of his music. And this kind of faith in this particular form of art is a rare thing. For its dynamic sincerity and understated confidence, the music of Eels reckons with that triumvirate of themes—love, death, faith—with a sagacity and self-awareness missing in so much popular music. Listening to it, I get the sense that Everett hasn't merely experienced the things he sings about, but that he has clutched the very concrete, unsavory nature of life in his bloodied and weathered hands. His music is valuable because he relates his experiences with his audience in way that make us feel less alone, less odd. There aren't many any other artists in the current music mainstream who can handle this stuff with such dexterity and make it rock like Everett does.
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