Beautiful Freak (1996) ***
E recruited a rhythm section to form a three-man band for the Eels' debut, but it's still essentially a one-man show revolving around Mark Oliver Everett's songwriting and neuroses. It's clear why E wanted to employ a working band, as the music shifts drastically from overproduced pop to state-of-the-'90s indie rock. It's problematic because E possesses no talent for the rock riff, and the increased focus on the lyrical side squashes the pop melodies flat. Sure, there are a few pretty ballads that recall the lush, emotionally fragile melodicism of E's first two solo records, and they are unsurprisingly the most effective (the title track; "Your Lucky Day in Hell"). To use another classic rock metaphor, this is John Lennon leaping from "Strawberry Fields" to Plastic Ono Band: the music, which employs hip hop beats, samples, and scratchy, distorted guitars, feels deliberately ugly and abrasive. E probably wanted to contrast the tonic of his gentle pop melodies with the kick of the band's corrosive rock, but the effect simply does not work that well most of the time. Like I said, the melodies are flattened, and the band lopes along too leisurely to effectively rock out, leaving the focus squarely on the lyrics.
From this album on, whether you care for the Eels depends on how much you care about Mark Everett as a person exorcising his soul. Myself, I don't find him particularly interesting or moving as a person reaching out to me via song, hence my lukewarm rating. E has never struck me as all that clever or insightful of a lyricist, which didn't bother me too much when he was penning lightweight pop ditties, but now that he's producing confessional singer-songwriter rock, suddenly the words start mattering very much. It's not that he's a bad lyricist, just not a very involving one: the scenes he notes walking around his low-rent L.A. neighborhood in "Susan's House," (which uses a well-chosen Steely Dan sample as the hook) are somewhat interesting as slice of life observations, but tell me nothing that I suspect any average person walking around the ghetto using his memory as notebook couldn't do as well. If refrains like "They say I'm mental but I just can't cope with it all," burrow into your soul and speak directly to you, as I suspect E spoke for many a troubled '90s teen, then by all means let E do so.
I want to like this guy; his heart is clearly in the right place, he's a sensitive soul with considerable talent, and he clearly has something untrivial that he wants to say. On initial listenings, this album came across as a distressingly dull letdown after his excellent solo albums - where have all the hooks shriveled up to? On repeated listens, it still sounds hookless and melodically lacking, but the virtues slowly make themselves felt, as I can remember the refrains and verses of nearly all of these well-constructed songs (none are that unmemorable, even for a reviewer like myself who listens to several albums a day), and par for the course of any E album, the emotional depth is engulfing. The sense of humor (ever so slight) and light touch of his solo albums, however - this bird has flown. And believe it or not, E still had further depths to plummet, awaiting the Eels' sophomore non-slump. This, then, is an awkward transitional album? Await and see....