The Eels made a big splash a couple of years ago with their debut record "Beautiful Freak" and its smash single "Novacaine for the Soul". Since then, the musical landscape has changed a lot: throwaway pop groups dominate the charts, and the alternative movement, being co-opted even then by wannabe pop stars who were just following the latest trend, has all but passed away into much-deserved obscurity. In light of this, it is unlikely that this record will duplicate the success of its predecessor - there are no obvious singles here (of course, most people wouldn't have picked "Novacaine" as a big single) and the introspective tone of the record is likely to scare away even the few DJs who might have remembered the earlier single.
And that's a real shame. This record is a big step forward, and easily one of the best records of the year. Musically, it mixes crisp, sharp, almost mechanical drums and deep, electronic-sounding bass with warmer instruments like guitars and organs. Lyrically it is a meditation on creative genius E's loss of his mother (cancer) and sister (suicide) in the years since "Beautiful Freak". Songs like "Cancer for the Cure", "Hospital Food", "Efil's God", and "Dead of Winter" all deal with how cancer's slow annihilation and often painful therapies affect not just the patient but those who care about her. "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor", "My Descent Into Madness", and "Electro-shock Blues" talk about the way insanity can infect and reinfect you, driving away those who care about you and taking you further out of reality, and specifically about how E had to watch his sister endure her madness until she felt forced to take her own life.
Even the songs that don't deal directly with one of these two losses still have an undercurrent of loss and sadness to them. "3 Speed" is a childhood memory retrospectively tinged with a paranoia about the world and our lack of control over the events which shape our lives. "Ant Farm" is a country flavored slice of acceptance and happiness; "Last Stop This Town", the first single, is an oddly hopeful song in the face of loss. The two closing tracks provide some sort of closure for the songwriter and the listener. "The Medication is Wearing Off" is about coming to terms with the pain of your loss and trying to remember the things you loved about the ones who are gone; "P.S. You Rock My World" is a hopeful looking forward to living life with someone you love.
This album has a special place in my heart next to Lou Reed's "Magic and Loss", a record he wrote after losing two friends to cancer and AIDS in a single year. I lost my own grandmother to cancer years ago, and I still struggle with her slow disintegration due to the disease and the drugs they used to treat it. Both records are very honest about the ravages of illness on an individual and on those who love them, yet eventually hopeful about the promise of life; they have helped me make a little more sense of a world that includes senseless pain and loss. But that's not why you should buy "Electro-shock Blues"; it has great songwriting and craftsmanship. The fact that you might learn a little something about yourself in the process of listening to it is a bonus.