Electro-shock Blues

August 9, 2011
by Leah Della Croce

Therapy Through Music

Although his childhood years had been relatively tame, his young adulthood would soon prove to anything but, and this profound love of music would be his sole anchor in a life gone hopelessly awry. In 1982, just shy of his twentieth birthday, E had experienced the death of his brilliant but troubled father, whom E himself barely knew. E has recounted in his memoirs the discovery of his dead father in his bedroom, and the harsh reality of this loss.

Now, hot on the heels of Beautiful Freak and its release, E was dealt yet another devastating blow. His beloved sister and only sibling, Elizabeth, after a lengthy battle with mental illness and substance abuse, committed suicide in 1996. This was not the first of Elizabeth Everett’s suicide attempts; she had been battling schizophrenia, alcoholism, and drug abuse since her teenage years, and had been institutionalized. Her brother had watched helplessly for years as her mental state declined significantly; at one point during a stay in a mental hospital, in which she had been instructed to write “I am OK”, on a notepad, she dutifully complied, but soon gave up, writing instead, “I am NOT OK”.

Electroshock Blues album cover These morbid writings, dark moods, and the misery of mental illness deeply affected E. Following Elizabeth’s untimely death, E began pouring both the pain of his sister’s death and her own mental anguish into his music. Many of the songs on his next album, Electro-shock Blues, are influenced by Elizabeth. The album opens, in fact, with a despondent song called “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor,” which recounts a real life incident in which Elizabeth was discovered at home on the bathroom floor following a suicide attempt. “And I/ I could try/But waking up is harder when you want to die,” sings E, softly, attempting to make sense of his sibling’s agony.

The album’s title track, “Electro-shock Blues”, is extremely sparse and haunting. However, it is chilling, beautiful, and remarkably accurate in its portrayal of mental illness and the devastation it causes those who suffer from it. The melody consists mainly of two bleak minor notes on piano, repeated over and over. If the music isn’t chill-inducing enough, the lyrics are even more disconsolate; they speak of Elizabeth’s stay in a mental hospital. “Skin is crawling off/Mopping the sweaty drops/Sticking around for this shit/Another day/Not another day.” For those who have not experienced it, this album, and particularly this song, provide the closest glimpse into the mind of a person helplessly at war within their own mind. It is a terrifying, ice-cold world, suspended precariously between life and death, in which one’s worst fears become a harsh reality, and nothing is what it seems to be. This bleak, midnight realm is treacherous, frightening, and difficult to describe in words; although E manages very well, he conveys this even better through the use of sound. The desperately morose tone of the piano keys are simple, but highly effective; he lets the music do most of the talking for him.

Mental illness is undoubtedly a major theme of the album. The jazzy, almost comical “Hospital Food,” has a paranoid quality about it: “Tiptoe through the alley and I tiptoe through your life/But you’ve still got it coming, be it gun or be it knife/”, and the string heavy “My Descent Into Madness” can be seen as a kind of companion song, detailing the dreary life within a mental ward.

Death is another primary motif behind Electro-shock Blues. In “Going to Your Funeral, Part I” E heartbreakingly describes the agony of attending his sister’s funeral in Hawaii. “Honolulu hurricane/I knew that you were not insane, living in the insane world/Smiling like it’s no big deal, scabby wounds that never heal/The beauty was only a girl.” It is accompanied by the gorgeous instrumental track, “Going to Your Funeral, Part II” which is almost deceptively cheery.

Elizabeth Everett’s death is not the only one referenced on this album. Not long after Elizabeth’s demise, E’s mother, Nancy, discovered that she had lung cancer. E attempted desperately to support and care for his mother during her illness and chemotherapy, entrusting her to the care of a team of home health nurses. Towards the end of her life, Nancy became extremely confused and helpless. Watching his own mother, who had raised and nurtured him from childhood, revert to such a pitiful state was undoubtedly agonizing for E. In 1998, Nancy Everett lost her battle with cancer, leaving E the sole remaining member of his immediate family. At 35, E was truly on his own.

In the face of such decimating agony, hope of recovery often seems all but impossible. At such a painful time in his life, the temptation to succumb to his own personal tragedies would doubtless have been overwhelming. There were two options available to E: give in to it and die, or resist and survive. E chose the later, not through medication or therapy, but through music.

Electro-shock Blues, as an album, has many dark elements present. However, it returns to the image conveyed in Beautiful Freak, that of a flower in a hailstorm. During what must have been the most difficult phase of his life, and buried beneath the stress and sorrow of his loved ones’ deaths, E clung valiantly to his hope.

This desperate cheerfulness is seen in songs such as “Ant Farm”, in which E recounts his fondness for his mother. “Hate a lot of things, but I love a few things/ And you are one of them/ Nevertheless, it’s all the mess you made/But I can let it go.” Another similarly upbeat tune is “P.S. You Rock My World”, which marks a turning point for E; although emotionally battered, he has not been beaten. “And I was thinking about how/Everyone is dying/Maybe it’s time to live,” he sings, resolutely.

Every negative emotion he felt, every painful memory of his sister and parents’ lives and death, were poured into the album Electro-shock Blues, along with every wish and hope for recovery, and a brighter future. The results were remarkable. The album received great critical acclaim for unabashedly dealing with topics like mental disorders, disease, substance abuse, and death, as well as perseverance, positivity, and an undying sense of hope.

I personally consider Electro-shock Blues to be one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, album in the Eels discography. It is one of the most personal and deeply affecting albums I have ever heard, shamelessly harsh, and yet intricate, beautiful, and soothing. Mark Everett’s courageous response to his family members’ deaths can only be commended. Electro-shock Blues is an unforgettable and touching work of art; and, finally, after pouring out most of his heart and soul into this classic album, E was finally able to conquer his demons and move on, into a brighter and more promising world.

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Leah Della Croce is a freelance journalist who has written for Examiner.com and the Alvernia University Magazine.

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