In a morose black-and-white cartoon accompanying the press kit for the new Eels album, Electro-Shock Blues (DreamWorks), a caricature of the band's bespectacled front man, who's known as "E," is footnoted by a bubble caption proclaiming, "Death is the greatest American taboo since sex." The statement could easily be amended to say, "Death is the greatest taboo in American pop music."
Crocodile, Tuesday, November 10
Several genres of music (particularly country) accommodate laconic narration of murders, car crashes, and drownings, but modern pop is not typically among them. Fans of the verse-chorus-verse formula easily embrace the sex quotient in their listening experience, but death? Forget it. Pop isn't supposed to be depressing; it's supposed to make you dance, to make you beat your hand against the steering wheel and feel a fleeting sense of hipness. In the unlikely event that a song about death does make it onto the airwaves (e.g., Jim Carroll's "People Who Died"), it damn well better be up-tempo and fleshed out with plenty of dark, juicy humor.
This unspoken rule may very well be broken by Eels' latest release, a majestic pop record chronicling an epidemic number of deaths in songwriter E's immediate circle of family and friends. Without sacrificing the starkness of his feelings, E has managed to make a palatable offering of 16 tracks that, on paper, would otherwise be best left protected by his therapist's patient-confidentiality agreement. A brief retelling of his sister's suicide (a two-minute lullaby titled "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor") opens Electro-Shock Blues, and as the disc spins, the listener moves with E through the Psych 101 textbook stages of grief. With rhythmic ferocity, he offers up a cavalcade of denial, delusion, anger, self-blame, and acceptance. Yet by employing honesty and a stunning variety of arrangements, E not only keeps his squeamish audience's attention, he instigates a craving to hear the whole story as if it were the listener's own trauma.
What makes this record intriguing is not its fearless observations, or even its passionate balance of jazzy backbone, rollicking organ puffs, and fantastically piercing choruses. It is the combination of unwavering truths and E's exquisitely hoarse vocals—which sound like Beck's might after a long night of sobbing and shouting at the moon—enabling Electro-Shock Blues to set pop precedent despite the odds. Though there's not a trace of sexual content to sell this record (it's amazing that a major label even agreed to release it, it's so unsexy), and even the catchy songs are cradled in a nontraditional setting of screwy falsettos, the pervading earnestness makes it impossible to deny.
With or without the brilliant instrumentation of guest musicians like Lisa Germano, Grant Lee Phillips, and T-Bone Burnett, E's muse is solid where his emotional well-being may falter. His delusions peek through on "My Descent into Madness," when he proclaims with false bravado, "Come visit me tonight at eight o'clock/And then you'll see how I am not the crazy one. . . . Voices tell me I'm the shit." Escapism is rampant in the reeling dirge "Cancer for the Cure": "And father knows best/About suicide and smack/Well, hee hee hee . . . Courtney needs love/And so do I/Well, hee hee hee." Morbid humor may be a coping mechanism for many who've had a loved one commit suicide, but E is not subscribing; he follows up Eels' biggest hit, 1996's giddy "Novocaine for the Soul," by writing a song called "The Medication Is Wearing Off." Instead of walking the line between the oft-lugubrious sentiments of, say, the Cure, and the caustic death obsession of Nick Cave, E would rather struggle in the world of the living with only his creative outlet as a shield.
We should be thankful that this is one singer-songwriter who dared to acknowledge his mortality with such depth. The overwhelming talent present on Electro-Shock Blues not only honors the necessity of growth in a time of personal trauma, it also illuminates the need for mainstream music channels to recognize that people don't always want their pop songs to be about tunnel-vision happiness. Just as E wrote these songs as part of a personal cleansing cycle, consumers often buy music to push themselves through difficult times. An animated tombstone in the album's liner notes is inscribed with the phrase, "Everything Is Changing." Hopefully the initial airplay of Electro-Shock's first single and its video, the resolute "Last Stop: This Town," reflects an acceptance of this caveat. If not, we'll be stuck listening to more vapid rock ditties by Stabbing Westward and radio's other sex-crazed minions, as well as missing out on one of this year's strongest albums.