A true monument, the Eels' Electro-Shock Blues is both an achievement
and a remembrance of the dead, one, moreover, that makes Nine Inch
Nails sound like a lark in the park and Lou Reed's "Berlin" seem heartless.
It's a concept album that is more than just concept, more than mere
album. Like fellow pop-genius Brian Wilson, singer/songwriter E has
become the sole living remnant of his family, and this music recognizes
harsh suffering and grief, yet not, in the end, despair.
Helped out by the musical likes of Grant Lee Phillips, Dust Brother
Michael Simpson, Lisa Germano, P. Huxley and T-Bone Burnett,
the album also features original, comic-book art, poetry by E's
grandmother, drawings by his father and writing by his late sister,
Elizabeth, all of which serve to bring death to life before our astonished ears.
In another context, the music alone would be praised for
its inventiveness as well as for its roots in the pop tradition.
But the lyrics are stunningly moving, mouth-gapingly sharp.
"Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor" opens things up with the
unforgettable image of the kitty licking Elizabeth's cheek
following her collapse; it constitutes the eeriest two minutes
you can imagine. "Going To Your Funeral, Part 1" describes "a
perfect day for perfect pain," a non-glib "Eleanor Rigby." "Cancer
For The Cure" features a scarifying mix, all snare and sneer and
black humor -- Grandpa happily watches video porn with the
closed-captions on, "Old blue-eyes is back again/ But he
was never here in the first place," while "Courtney needs
love/ And so do I." Shivers.
"My Descent Into Madness" urges us to "Have a not so nice
day," and despite a la-la-la-la chorus, the lyrics are
dead serious: "The jacket makes me straight so I can just sit
back and bake," and, disturbingly, "Voices tell me I'm the
shit." Catchy, huh? The mood continues in "3-Speed," a
tender bike-ride through birthday parties, confusion and
becoming a mess: "Life is funny/ But not ha ha funny."
"Hospital Food" is a be-boppy conga soundtrack to the
ensuing nightmare: go down this dark alley, it observes,
and "Next thing you know/ you're eating hospital food." The
eponymous "Electro-Shock Blues" is gut-wrenched from that
place in which "you write down 'I am OK' a hundred times,
the doctors say I am OK ... I am not OK." Catch 22, eh?
"Efils God" advises that "it's time to split this hunk of
clay." E doesn't feel too good, does E? "Last Stop: This Town"
has hit, incredibly, written all over it, while "Baby Genius" is
heartbreaking, gorgeous and funny.
"Climbing To The Moon" is a musical version of the William
Blake etching that shows tiny figures climbing a ladder to
the moon, with the caption "I want! I want!"
That's way up in the sky; closer to the ground, "Ant Farm"
is a reflection on love and hate that features the
inspirational rhyme "farm/harm."
"Dead Of Winter" voices courage in the face of cancer
and its deadly treatment; it's stripped and spare, wintry
and true. Written as an answer to E's own earlier hit,
"Novocaine For The Soul," "The Medication Is Wearing Off"
is worldly, and wise.
Best is, thank God, last. "P.S. You Rock My World"
is not only a final farewell to Elizabeth, but evidence
of that which can be learned from the tragic: "a careful
man tries to dodge the bullets/ while a happy man takes
a walk." When E muses, "maybe it's time to live," he and
we -- his listeners -- emerge, startlingly, even improbably,