In a 1999 CNN interview Mark Oliver Everett, the creative motor and sole permanent member of Eels, described “Electro-Shock Blues”, with dry gallows humour, as “the party album of the year”. This was perhaps gently over-stating things by a light-year or two. Following the critical and commercial success of Eels’ 1996 debut “Beautiful Freak”, the band’s nascent fame was promptly derailed by a string of personal tragedies for Everett that are far too deeply saddening to delve into thoroughly here, basically comprising of the deaths of his remaining immediate family.
It was this deep well of sorrow that Everett was to plumb on “Electro-Shock Blues”, its title a reference to his sister’s electroconvulsive therapy. The album catalogues virtually every facet of human suffering, from the giddy paranoia of “Going to Your Funeral Part I” to the hideously pretty and almost unbearably desolate title track. On a musical level, the use of plinking xylophones and tinny music boxes—for instance, on the Beach Boys-esque “Baby Genius”—signifies a regression into a numbed, distorted childhood, which jars incongruously with the natural weariness and grain of Everett’s voice.
Although its intimately personal idiosyncrasy is inherently resistant to placement in a wider musical context, “Electro-Shock Blues” is truly the “difficult second album” amplified to almost farcical proportions. Everett, who surprisingly and laudably retained his self-deprecating sense of humour, is prone to droll, blackly funny quips about this. On “3 Speed” he remarks, dry as the Sahara, “Life is funny, but not ha-ha funny/Peculiar, I guess”. This deepens into the hard-won, utilitarian optimism of “Last Stop: This Town” which opens, with wonderfully deadpan flatness, “You’re dead, but the world keeps spinning”. The song is the album’s triumph, spinning pure, joyous pop of abject dejection. Especially in contrast to the songs that precede it, “Last Stop: This Town” attains a glorious transcendence, both physically and emotionally: “Why don’t we take a ride away up high through the neighbourhood? Up over the billboards and the factories and smoke?”
“Electro-Shock Blues” is an album inseparable from grief, but one that is ultimately about progression. As Everett enthused with startling candour in the aforementioned interview, “I started to get excited about it creatively, because I felt I could tie my own experience together and make it meaningful to everyone.” Whether you’re just on safari or know the sleepless nights and vodka bottles first-hand, the album is an uplifting assertion of the essential durability of character. From the maniacal samba of “Hospital Food” to the wistful lushness of “Going to Your Funeral Part II”, “Electro-Shock Blues” is a lost masterpiece of unflinching introspection. Drink it in. If he can stand it, you can. Perhaps it really is a party album. CO
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TfqbuTBqX8