Electro-Shock Blues might very well be one of the bravest albums ever released. Although Mark Oliver Everett (a.k.a E) had released a couple of solo albums prior to Eels’ debut, 1996’s Beautiful Freak had the tastemakers throwing about wildly optimistic missives about Eels being the great hope for the future of American rock music. After Electro-Shock Blues those same tastemakers were no longer throwing about such statements, instead they were slightly uneasy and trying to figure out if all was well in the world of E.
Of course it wasn’t, and just a perfunctory listen to Electro-Shock Blues from anything other than a purely commercial perspective would have confirmed that. Most of Electro-Shock Blues is miles away from the commercial post-Grunge alternative rock that the tastemakers really really wanted it to be. Instead it is melancholic, to the point of being full-blown harrowing in places, and a deeply personal album made by a man who had discovered his father dead of a heart failure in 1982, and had lost his sister to suicide and mother to cancer in the space of two years. All of this resulted in Electro-Shock Blues being an almost wilfully uncommercial follow up to Eels debut.
Or at least that’s the narrative.
The thing is, Electro-Shock Blues is an elegantly sad album which disguises some utterly brilliant pop tunes as heartbreakingly personal testaments. The arrangement of “3 Speed” is sparse almost to the point of being naked, but it is also a song draped around a beautiful beautiful melody. “Hospital Food” is less pretty, but sees Eels flirt with a jazzy arrangement that E’s hero Tom Waits wouldn’t have considered too commercial.
Talking of accessibility, Electro-Shock Blues’ one shameless attempt at a single is one of Eels’ finest singles, but as a result it stands out like a sore thumb on the album. “Last Stop: This Town” is a phenomenal pop song and manages to briefly chase away the fug of deep despair that will no doubt have descended on the listener by now. Some have decried it’s inclusion on the grounds that it disturbs the vibe of Electro-Shock Blues, but anyone who has experienced deep grief will also have had the experience of something unexpectedly chasing the melancholy away, even if only temporarily. Elsewhere “Climbing to the Moon” is another accessible tune, and one which cries out to be a closing number, and it would deserve to be if this album closed with any other song than the one it closes with.
Electro-Shock Blues is not an album that stands up to repeated listens too often, not because it isn’t good, but because it is simply too effective at channeling the deeply sad stuff that E was going through in the years before he recorded it. It’s an album that anyone who is even vaguely sensitive could find utterly overwhelming, but also find great comfort in, as E works his way through all manner of conflicting emotions that such trauma inevitably brings. Electro-Shock Blues is an album that takes it out of you.
The fact that Electro-Shock Blues is such an emotionally exhausting listen isn’t aided by the fact that it loses a bit of momentum about two thirds of the way through. “Baby Genius” struggles to regain the mood following “Last Stop: This Town”, and after the seemingly climactic “Climbing to the Moon”, “Ant Farm” and “Dead of Winter” just don’t quite hit the spot. They’re not bad songs by any means, indeed “Ant Farm” is actually quite the toe-tapper, and “Dead of Winter” is an utterly heartbreaking number, they just struggle to follow “Climbing to the Moon”.
Okay, so if “Climbing to the Moon” could have closed Electro-Shock Blues, but doesn’t, why am I not grumbling about it like I usually would do? It’s because Electro-Shock Blues closes with perhaps the greatest Eels number. At the end of Eels’ most personal album, where E strips away all the protective layers of being a rock star to stand raw and naked before us, he leaves us with “P.S. You Rock My World”. After listening to an album that can be as harrowing as Electro-Shock Blues, the fact that it closes with a song of acceptance and even optimism, means you come out of the other end of it feeling that if E has been able to cope with what life has flung at him, then you can cope with the vagaries of life yourself.
It takes a brave album to be able to do that.