Little goose-bump moments
Put the resolute and candid E in the winner pile
Is E one of the best songwriters of the past 15 years? Despite mounting evidence—eight albums since 1992; collaborations with Tom Waits, Peter Buck, Grant-Lee Phillips, Don Simpson, Jon Brion, T-Bone Burnett, John Parish and even Wim Wenders; and a nomination for the Shortlist Music Prize—E of the Eels (real name Mark Oliver Everett) repeatedly is overlooked.
Back in 1997, the Eels’ hit single “Novocaine for the Soul” was unfairly cast as a Beck bite-off. The lyrics—“Life is hard / And so am I / You’d better give me something so I don’t die”—were morbid and hip, and the song’s quiet-verse/loud-chorus arrangement charmingly offset E’s fatalistic, gloom-and-doom personality. He stopped performing “Novocaine” for a few years, but it appears on Eels with Strings: Live at Town Hall, recorded in New York City a year ago this month.
“One of the difficulties in the career aspect of the Eels is that we do different stuff,” said E, via telephone from Los Angeles. “You’d be surprised how everybody kind of wants everyone to be pigeonholed and do one thing. I don’t get that. I think life’s too short.”
2005’s Blinking Lights and Other Revelations continued to pepper pessimism with pop. Songs like “Going Fetal,” which features a whining Waits, addresses social irresponsibility over an early-’60s invasion backbeat. E’s lyrics contemplate hopelessness and failure but balance despondency with the need to explore. “Railroad Man” is about final frontiers and E’s train trip across America and back. As E observed, train culture “just felt like it was kind of falling apart. I sort of felt the same way about the music industry.” (When asked point blank if he thinks the recording biz is on the outs, he snapped, “Yeah, don’t you?”)
Blinking Lights was written intermittently and in fragments. The opener, “From Which I Came/A Magic World,” a song about discovery and innocence, was left “half-unwritten for, like, a year because I was convinced it sucked. … I wrote it when I was sick in bed on a Sunday afternoon.”
Pitchfork Media wrote that after hearing E’s latest, its staff “suffered a serious downturn in mental health.” E recalled writing “a lot of songs for Blinking Lights when I was sick in bed at different times.” But not all the songs are downers, and E certainly was at his most prolific while under the weather. “There must be something to that fever state that helps you write songs,” he said.
E’s admitted his stronger songs “start with a lyrical idea,” but he wouldn’t divulge which songs he considers these to be. He did offer recent live favorites: the poppy, anti-conformist anthem “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)”; the jam groove “Trouble With Dreams”; and the sweet and honest “I’m Going to Stop Pretending that I Didn’t Break Your Heart.” This last song, a minor-key ballad about regret and lost love, retains the alt-western style and wispy backsaw highs of the original Blinking Lights recording on the Strings version. Along with a stripped-bare rendition of “Bus Stop Boxer,” it’s a standout track.
E culled songs from two decades’ worth of material for the Strings tour. “You just sort of get an inkling that it would be a good match,” he said of reinventing old songs. “I got that little goose-bump moment at one point and thought, ‘All right. That’s a winner. Put that in the winner pile.’”
The Eels’ follow-up to that tour, which includes a June 1 stop at Harlow’s, employs simplified musical ambitions. “I just rock now,” E boasted. “[The Town Hall concert] was like a gentleman’s concert. I think what we’re doing this year is going to be a little more, let’s say, not your parents’ Eels concert.”
So, what’s next? “I don’t know. I really don’t know,” E repeated. “I’ve sort of been forcing myself to take a break from making the next thing and just give it some time, because it always comes.”