The Eels have a recent CD, Souljacker, their fourth. They should be happy, but E, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who leads the band, is rarely, if ever, happy. He has the soul of a Russian. At their best, E’s Eels combine rocking rhythm, deft expression of the tragic, and a melodic delicacy that bleeds poignancy into the tragedy.
E has a very unusual pedigree for a rocker, or for anyone for that matter. His father was famed physicist Dr. Hugh Everett III, “one of the most important scientists of the 20th century,” according to Scientific American, and the author of the “relative-state metatheory,” which came to known as “Everett’s Many-Worlds Theory,” wherein quantum paradoxes are resolved by the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Per Douglas Jones,
- According to this interpretation, whenever numerous viable possibilities exist, the world splits into many worlds, one world for each different possibility (in this context, the term “worlds” refers to what most people call “universes”). In each of these worlds, everything is identical, except for that one different choice; from that point on, they develop independently, and no communication is possible between them, so the people living in those worlds (and splitting along with them) may have no idea that this is going on.
In other words, Everett came up with the idea of parallel universes that has launched a thousand science fiction scenarios and graduate school papers.
Everett and his wife Nancy had two children, Elizabeth and Mark, who grew up in suburban northern Viginia. Mark was drawn not toward theoretical physics but toward the records his older sister played. At the age of six, Mark wheedled a $15 drum set out of his parents from a garage sale. According to his bio, he played those drums every day for the next ten years. Amidst teenaged trouble in school and even with the law, Mark added piano and guitar to his repertoire. His circle of friends included several Marks, so they went by their initials. Over time, “ME” was simplified to “E.”
By the age of 20, E was obsessed with writing and recording songs, which he did daily for the next seven years. Looking for a change, he drove to Los Angeles and, interspersed with “shitty” jobs to pay the rent, resumed his routine. In ’91 the obsession paid off and E got a two-record deal with Polydor Records. His oddly constrained, resigned, world-weary but brave voice was already fully formed, and his first CD, A Man Called E yielded an alt-rock radio hit in “Hello Cruel World” in ’92. His second, Broken Toy Shop, came out in ’93.
Though the stark loneliness of the single-lettered name “E” represented his emotional outlook rather well, it was also very confusing for marketing purposes. After being dumped by Polydor, E added drummer Butch and bassist Tommy Walters to the mix creating “Eels.” Their brilliant first album Beautiful Freak, co-produced by E and Dust Brother Mike Simpson, came out in ’96. On it E alternates between his frayed lower register and a lilting, affecting falsetto to create a dialogue with himself on fables for self-absorbed suburban teens like “Your Lucky Day in Hell,” “Susan’s House” and “My Beloved Monster.”
The production is white room clean yet intimate as traditional ringing guitar is spiced with Beck-like samples, loops and exotic instrumentation (theremin). On the startling, beautiful “Novocaine For The Soul” (alt-rock radio #1), a light jazzy cymbal and bell intro is jolted by acute guitar and “I Am the Walrus” orchestration. “Life is hard/ And so am I/ You’d better give me something, so I don’t die/ Novocaine for the soul/ Before I sputter out.” Though heavy with ennui and solipsism, Beautiful Freak holds out the hope that life can be fixed, and is, like the huge-eyed figure of its cover, beautifully freaky.
Though finally successful, E’s bleak view grew even more so, though not without cause. E had found his father dead when he was 19. His sister Elizabeth had committed suicide in ’96, and now in ’97 his mother was dying of lung cancer. He attacked this litany of sorrow on the difficult but cathartic Electro-Shock Blues, and Daisies of the Galaxy. Reflecting a dream Butch had of himself playing timpani with a full “Eels Orchestra,” an orchestra of that name was assembled and toured in 2000.
Now comes Souljacker, on which the previously nerdish, bespectacled E has adopted a feral Kaczynski-like appearance, with full beard, shades and tight hood. The music has similarly moved from chamber rock to a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion ragged psycho-blues. Alternately brooding and vicious, highlights include “That’s Not Really Funny,” “Fresh Feeling,” the heavy groove of “Jungle Telegraph,” and best, the sprightly and tuneful “Rotten World Blues,” contained on a supplemental four-song EP. It’s his (their) best since Beautiful Freak.