Three Stages Of Eels: A Beginners Guide To Eels
Tom Baker takes his pick of the many moods of Mark Oliver Everett and co.
Photo: Mike Massaro / DIY
During our recent interview with Mark Oliver Everett – better known as E, the bearded, bespectacled core of Eels – described the themes of his most recent album as; “a lot of lyrics about trying to fight my way out of a corner. Feeling lost but not willing to go down without a fight.” What's true of 'Wonderful, Glorious' is true of most of the past 12 years of Eels' music (and, if you've read E's autobiography 'Things The Grandchildren Should Know', his life) – between 1996's burgeoning alt-rock 'Beautiful Freak' and 2010's reflective double-bill 'End Times' and 'Tomorrow Morning', Everett and company have been circling around the same themes of directionless sadness, anger, and – occasionally – profound, hard-earned happiness. If you've somehow missed this emotional musical rollercoaster, fear not – we've a neat little bluffer's guide for your right here.
By Tom Baker
Posted 31st January 2013, 11:10am
We've tried our best to shoehorn Eels brilliantly varied and experimental back catalogue into three themes – sad songs (self-explanatory), mad songs (as in, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it any more!") and, uh glad songs – y'know, happy ones! Well, they're as happy as Eels get, anyway. Plus, it rhymes. Enjoy!
Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor
The most visceral, raw track of a visceral, raw album. E's sophomore record came about following the suicide of his sister and his mother's death from cancer. This song describes, in unflinching detail, the former incident – finding his long-troubled older sister in her bathroom, and quoting from her diary. As we'll see later, E never tries to sugar-coat or shy away from ugly feelings, and it's reflected in the language: “My name's Elizabeth / My life is shit and piss.”
A Line In The Dirt
After a life full of tragedy – not only the death of his mother and sister, but the death of his distant, brilliant scientist father when he was young (not to mention cousins aboard one of the hi-jacked planes during 9/11) – E finally found love and married in 2000. After five years, Anna – the Russian dentist he met at a psychologist's office – left him. Much of 2010's 'End Times' is about the divorce, and this is a bleak and yet somehow everyday song about the peak of the collapse. “I have to laugh when I think how far it's gone / But things aren't funny any more.” the sometime gruff-sounding frontman intones over a slowly-ebbing piano, drums and brass backing.
E imagines himself as an old train driver whose “engine no longer burns on wood” – basically, an update of the Beach Boys' 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times'. The same feeling of claustrophobic in a confusing world, with some beautifully anachronistic lap steel guitar topping it all off.
The second cut from 'End Times' in this list comes when E is alone again – save for the titular feathered friend hopping along his porch (not a euphemism) and a browbeaten jangle-pop guitar. In catalogue of soul-bearing music, this is perhaps the most stripped down, and the most unguarded – whilst a little mellowed language-wise – “I just can't take how very much / Goddamn / I miss that girl”.
It's A Motherfucker
You can see why he likes girls with dirty mouths – E turns the conventional, piano-led break up ballad into an honest exercise. “It's a motherfucker being here without you” is as poetic as it is, well, honest. (The real tearjerker is probably the alternating refrain: “And I won't ever be the same”)
Novocaine For The Soul (Live)
One of the best-known early Eels songs – a fixture of college radio in America, integral part of Trigger Happy TV's surreal, 'alternative' soundtrack. The original is the dark yin to the yang of Beck's 'Odelay', a nascent, nihilistic pop tune above some crackly samples and breakbeats. This version, meanwhile, is the amazing, thrashy, Tex Mex version played during the 'Electro Shock Blues' tour – highlighting the key lyric: “Life is good / And I feel great / 'Cos mother says I was / A great mistake”. Ouch.
Souljacker Part 1
As heard in 'Hot Fuzz', 'The Condemned' and 'Drive Angry' – which should give you a good idea of how it sounds. 300-mph gonzo garage guitars, an iconic bassline, and screaming free-association imagery of buried skulls, trailer parks and the apocalypse. ROCK.
Cancer For The Cure
Another of Eels' counter-cultural theme songs, a la 'Novocaine...', memorably used in 'American Beauty' to highlight the whole “seedy suburbia” angle – creeping, creepy howling voices, grinding industrial noises, and singing about “kids diggin' up a brand new hole / Where to put deadbeat mom,” followed by sinister laughter. Blacker than black, even when the Monster Mash organs come in for the chorus.
Tiger In My Tank
“I bought some rock star ashes / From the back of Rolling Stone / I guess he wouldn't mind it / They couldn't sell his soul”. Undoubtedly angry Eels, and one of his most self-referential. The song itself is part twisted lullaby, part 50s rock-and-roll – only, with the organ half-melted, the band skeletal and decrepit.
Mr E's Beautiful Blues
Perhaps the most sarcastic song in a career made up of as much sneering contempt as soul-bearing sincerity – and perhaps Eels' biggest hit outside of 'Novocaine' or 'Cancer' – with the chorus “Goddamn right it's a beautiful day” counterpointing lyrics like “the smokestack spitting black soot into the sooty sky” and “the load on the road brings a tear to the Indian's eye”. Accompanied by a memorable video filmed on the set of gross-out comedy 'Road Trip' which E, obviously despised doing.
Never has there been such a sincere, touching song that's also something of a backhanded compliment (excepting, of course, David Guetta and Akon's 'Sexy Bitch'). The title track from the first Eels album is a gorgeous, harmonium-lead ballad about being in love with a girl that is “not like the others” – a 'freak' to them, but not to E. Still, maybe don't put it on any mixtapes to prospective lovers. Might take it the wrong way.
On the other hand, this is probably the most unabashedly sweet song in E's canon, a totally played-straight love song that's ushered along by a persistent drum machine, pushed past a viola section, some warm analogue keys and gently dripping synths. Then the video is about a female assassin. So it goes.
I Like Birds
As we already know from 'Little Bird', E does have a thing for feathered friends. Actually most of 'I Like Birds' – he hasn't time for the “mean little people [that] are such a bore – is kind of misanthropic, but the joyous close-harmony chorus line in the back and the insistently chirpy whistling and minor-key acoustic lead makes it all seem very jolly. And he really does like birds.
Another genuinely upbeat Eels tune; even if it's taking into account the inevitable passing of time, it's to get to that sense of the new and exciting in the title. The music is, therefore, just as fresh – a toe-tapping breakbeat in tandem with a cinematic string section, Mr Everett's voice devoid of any sort of cynicism. Lovely.
Hey Man (Now You're Really Living
Lovely, but not all that realistic, maybe – which is where this, perhaps the quintessential Eels song, comes in. The centrepiece of 'Blinking Lights And Other Revelations' is this simple, catchy pop tune (with a sax solo in the middle) with the sing-along titular chorus. “Have you ever made love to a beautiful girl / Made you feel like it's not such a bad world?” E asks, and it's clear that he does, and that holding onto that makes everything better – even when, in the same song, he's pondering “Do you know what it's like to fall on the floor / Cry your guts out 'til you got no more?”. The Eels catalogue is as chocka with mixed emotions as it is blends of genres and musical styles, and their frontman knows better than anyone that any one moment can be tinged equally with happiness and regret – so his songs are, so life is. But unlike life, Eels songs have brilliant choruses.