Mark Oliver Everett, the Southern Californian who goes by the letter E, has crafted an impressive career out of his mastery of classic pop songwriting, his disgust with relationships and contemporary social and political mores, and the unlikely combination of the two. His pre-Eels solo albums are low-key melodic gems of (mostly) acoustic guitar and piano pop. The production is uncluttered, his singing is unforced and the tunes are eminently hummable, with a sense of cockeyed humor and periodic wistful optimism that is noteworthy in the later context of the Eels’ pronounced bitterness. A Man Called (E), 11 songs in 32 minutes, reflects influences from Squeeze to Joe Jackson to the Monkees. With songs by E and simpatico LA pop songwriter Parthenon Huxley, the album delicately balances its themes of romantic pathos (“Are You and Me Gonna Happen?”), isolation (“Fitting in With the Misfits”) and a gentle if naïve romanticism (“Mockingbird Franklin”). A 30-second “Symphony for Toy Piano in G Minor” doesn’t hurt, either. Broken Toy Shop is longer, but less memorable overall, although “The Only Thing I Care About” and “Shine It All On” are finger-snappable pop hits that weren’t.
E had already proved himself a fully-formed singer-songwriter by the time he formed the Eels in the mid- ’90s. With Butch Norton on drums and Tommy Walter on bass, E ran his straightforward pop songs through a grinder, throwing chunky drum breaks, startling guitar solos and frequent samples into an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style that draws comparisons with Beck and Jon Brion’s production work. Beautiful Freak‘s opening single, “Novacaine for the Soul,” is a startling pastiche of hip-hop drum samples, synthesized strings, rock guitars and toy piano tinkling. Parts of the album are deliberately grating and aggressive, like “Rags to Rags” and “Mental,” but those are among the least effective songs. “Susan’s House” finds abundant opportunity to critique the decay in E’s world, to morbidly hilarious effect (“Grampa’s watching video porn / With the closed caption on”). But E’s material works best when he finds the rare balance between his misanthropy and his capacity for warmth, like the richly melodic “Lucky Day in Hell” and “Manchild,” written with Jill Sobule.
Personal matters in E’s life then took a bad turn: his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and his sister committed suicide. The resulting Electro-Shock Blues is one of the most heartrendingly beautiful alternative rock albums of the 1990s, and one that draws legitimate comparison with Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers and Lisa Germano’s Geek the Girl in its capacity to leave the listener emotionally battered by the artist’s pain. Electro-Shock Blues benefits from effective contributions by Germano, Huxley, Brion, Grant-Lee Phillips, T-Bone Burnett and Mike Simpson of the Dust Brothers. It begins with the uncompromising “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor” and pursues the theme with “Cancer for the Cure,” “Hospital Food” and “The Medication Is Wearing Off.” Despite all the misery, the music is brilliant. “Climbing to the Moon” finds a middle ground between the brittle pop of Aimee Mann and the sturdy folk-rock of Counting Crows. Strummed acoustic pieces (“Ant Farm,” with Germano, and “3 Speed”) co-exist with sample-cluttered noisy rock. The effect is unsettling in its intimacy with E’s pain and confusion, even when he indulges his pop instincts in the rousing “Last Stop: This Town.” The closer, “P.S. You Rock My World,” finds solace in the prospect of companionship and trust, even in the face of such pain, and offers a salve to the emotional anguish depicted over the course of the album. Masterful.
Any album was bound to suffer in comparison to Electro-Shock Blues, but Daisies of the Galaxy is respectably strong, leavened by an appealing dry humor and tunefulness. Many of the songs are small in scale and production values, with straightforward melodic lines and unaffectedly emotional singing. E began his career as an acoustic tunesmith, and can still work that realm effectively, as “Jeannie’s Diary,” “Wooden Nickels” and the sympathetic “It’s a Motherfucker” display. It’s only on the unlisted bonus track, “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues,” that he pulls out the stops and unleashes the production gimmickry of earlier Eels singles. Loping keyboard riffs and twinkling samples allow him to smuggle in a reflection on environmental decay, moral decline and personal accountability, all to the resolutely cheery refrain “Goddamn right, it’s a beautiful day.”
The live Oh What a Beautiful Morning was assembled from shows in the United States, Europe and Australia (the Eels are more popular abroad than at home). It features a few otherwise-unreleased numbers (like the grim “Abortion in the Sky”), the guardedly optimistic “Something is Sacred,” a jazzy rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein title track and Eels faves, among them a lengthy jam on Daisies of the Galaxy‘s “Flyswatter.”
Set for release in the United States on September 11, 2001, Souljacker was postponed due to its title and theme and ultimately got lost in the commercial shuffle. (Far worse than any subsequent commercial misfortune, E lost a cousin in the plane that was driven into the Pentagon.) Considered apart from its unfortunate context, Souljacker displays an alarming tendency toward repetitiveness. E’s songwriting has always been a bit solipsistic, and there are only so many ways that he can depict his own pain. On this hit-or-miss album, the highway ode “Woman Driving, Man Sleeping” is haunting, and “Fresh Feeling” melds a lonely cello and drum samples to splendid effect. Rotten World Blues, an EP released alongside the album, has the funky title track, the funny-the-first- time (and never after) “Jehovah’s Witness” and a hilarious “I Write the B-Sides.” Shootenanny is a partial return to form, but mostly because it recalls highlights of previous Eels albums.
A long-promised double-length album, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, restores faith in E’s songwriting skills, providing welcome reassurance for those concerned about his emotional stability. All the offbeat humor is intact, along with touching empathy and warmth (“Things the Grandchildren Should Know,” “Trouble With Dreams”) as well as the almost-danceable “Going Fetal.” Two albums of E musings is a bit much, but, on the whole, Blinking Lights does stand as a resounding return to form. Tom Waits, Peter Buck and other friends and admirers make their customary appearances.
In 2005 tour, E took the Eels on the road, accompanied by a string quartet. The resulting Eels With Strings: Live at Town Hall album and DVD covers much of Blinking Lights, plus a good sampling of prior Eels and E solo material, and some canny covers: the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina,” Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” and Johnny Rivers’ “Poor Side of Town.” The touring band here consists of Big Al and The Chet, members of the Portland-based James Low Band. From the moment that E takes the stage (with a suit, walking stick and cigar for effect), it’s clear that the conflicting influences in Eels’ music — ingratiating tunes, bitter lyrics, unlikely instrumentation — have been thoroughly reconciled. Musical saw plays a leading role in some songs; on others, the string section provides unlikely “doot doot” vocals. The performances are all good, but E’s voice is alarmingly scratchy, a problem surely exacerbated by the ever-present cigar. The DVD and CD have overlapping but not identical tracklists.