File under uneasy listening
The eels delve into death on 'electro-shock blues'
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From Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- The eels' "electro-shock blues" is an album that inspires both fervid condolences and wholehearted congratulations.
Both should go to E, the California trio's lead singer, who was digging through the emotional sewage left over from his sister's suicide, his mother's battle with terminal cancer, the deaths of several friends and the childhood memory of finding his dad dead of a stroke.
Initially, he says, he shied away from packaging his intensely personal grief into his music. But he ultimately decided to alchemize it into a phenomenally harrowing yet singularly uplifting album that brings death to life.
At times zippy, at times deeply despondent, the album is a gentle, at times buoyant exploration of the devastation of death, and ultimately a reaffirmation of life. On the concept album that could be best filed under uneasy listening, the 16 songs about suicide, funerals, cancer and the inevitability of dying deal "with common dark problems in a way unique musical setting," says E.
"My family and friends had died. I tried to ignore that from a creative standpoint, because it wasn't too inspiring and felt too personal," says E. "But as time went on I started to get excited about it creatively, because I felt I could tie my own experience together and make it meaningful to everyone."
"I got excited about sharing it when I realized that I'm a survivor and I better enjoy my right now," he adds. "I'm in touch with the idea of mortality."
A melodic wake
E somewhat bitingly describes "electro-shock blues" as "the party album of the year." In truth, the elastic melodies and deceptively upbeat, sample-happy, tape loop-driven music belie the dismal words, saving the album from emotional overkill. It's like a melodious funeral ... starting with E's sister dying on a bathroom floor and closing with his discovery that "maybe it's time to live."
"I'm a survivor. I always manage to bounce back," says E. "That's why the music buffers the lyrics a little bit. It means that this is sad, but I'm going to bounce back."
Up to this point, the eels were best known for their 1996 radio hit "Novocaine for the Soul" from the album "Beautiful Freak," which celebrated individuality and covered the fairly standard themes of alienation and depression. The last record, which generated a label bidding war for the band, was "from a teen-age point of view, something that would feel good and comfort the teen-ager in me. This time, I skipped right to the 30s," says E.
Album was 'completely therapeutic'
"This album was completely therapeutic, a big emotional s-t I had to take," he says. "I'm a much better person for it. But I don't expect the world to get something out it."
Hopefully, though, it will, through a series of songs that sketch a lucid portrait of E's losses. On the tranquil "3 Speed," E croons that he longs for "a pony and a birthday cake/ Want a party with a scary clown," as he yearns for simple childhood, for some insight and explanation into the inexplicable. He bashes random violence on the dark, swing-flavored Morphine-esque "Hospital Food," chanting that "You still got it coming be it gun be it knife. Next thing you know you're eating hospital food." The title song, perhaps the most tender piece on the album, is a childish lullaby, as E croons comforting words to himself: "I am OK, I am OK ... I am trying."
E may jokingly refer to the album as a wake, but he says that his label, DreamWorks Records, never pressured him to produce something more infectious and radio-friendly -- and with some obvious airplay candidates, which this album lacks. It may not be an easy sell in the day where bland is often considered best, but he hopes that listeners won't be driven away by the album's mirthless subject matter.
"The album is very musical and tuneful, and it shouldn't scare people away. It deals with scary issues, but it's not cartoonish. These are dark issues that everyone has to deal with," says E.
'I give people credit'
The eels have been touring heavily to support the album, and even are somewhat surprised that the fans keep turning out to see them.
"It's unusual. I give people credit for coming to our show because I can understand if people expect a real bummer. But I think a lot of people leave feeling good about life," says E.
It's their party and they'll die if they want to, but E says the band's next album, now in the writing stages, should be more upbeat, if not exactly "MTV Party to Go" material. He says that perhaps he's finally purged himself of his emotional baggage.
"All of my records have been a process and it's over now. I've worked out the things I needed to work out," he laughs.
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