Broken Toy Shop (1993) ****
Another selection of lush, piano and acoustic guitar based pop tunes of whitebread, upper-middle class angst, this album is slightly longer (14 pop songs this time; once again, there's one brief song snippetty interlude at the end of "Mass") and feels more fleshed out, the songs less fragmentary. We're firmly entrenched in the '90s by now, so the production values are more tolerable. The bad news is that Mark Everett sounds even more depressed than before; the songs crawl by more slowly and morosely, the album being dominated by syrupily orchestrated ballads. With a perfect sense of pacing, Everett makes sure to insert a peppier number every two or three tracks as "Someone to Break the Spell". So while the two opening songs are morbidly slow-rousing anthems of clinical sadness, track three jumps up with a jolt. Though it's hard to feel sympathy for the narrator of "The Only Thing I Care About," who lost the girl because he has "eyes that wander round," the sprightly bounce in the warm acoustic guitar bed and lilting British Invasion melody make it the obvious standout for a single (which it was).
And a good general rule of thumb for pop albums is that the songs that sound like potential singles are the best songs, right? Either "A Most Unpleasant Man," (the love of a good woman rescues sour curmudgeons) or "Tomorrow I'll Be Nine," (contrary to fantasies of childhood as an idyll, children suffer depression as frequently as adults) could have served as the followup single - both are relatively sprightly. Well, maybe not the latter, as the lyrics are kind of roughly hard-hitting, sung from the point of view of a mentally abused eight-year old who always feels as if he's always doing something wrong and wonders if his parents would be happier if he was gone. OK, so it's no surprise after all that E didn't find pop chart success. Everett could be a male Aimee Mann, only where Mann's bitterness is spewed at ex-lovers, E's daggers are turned inwards. He rues far too deeply over his own mistakes ("The Day I Wrote You Off") to forgive himself or move on. As a case study in morbid self-loathing, it's a fascinating listen, if an uncomfortably intimate one - the listener as voyeur. (And the final two songs are rather nondescript, boring snoozeballads). John Lennon in confessional my-childhood-was-shit mode meets Brian Wilson's hypermelodic but painfully shy introvert's ballads - to mix a classic-rock metaphor. From what I know about Everret's real life, he had his reasons to be depressed: a father that died when he was eight, a troubled alcohol & drug-fueled adolesence that saw him drop out of high school to pump gas, and just as he reaches stardom with the Eels, he loses both his mother and sister. But I wish the guy would at least try to cheer up. The intense sadness of this record almost brings me to tears, and I've been in a happy mood lately.