Mr E's beautiful blues

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Gareth Branwyn writes on technology, pop and fringe culture. He is currently a Contributing Editor at Maker Media. Recent projects have included co-creating The Maker's Notebook and editing The Best of MAKE and The Best of Instructables collections.

I may be one of the few people who came to the Eels through Hugh Everett III, father of principle Eel, Mark Oliver Everett, aka "E." Mark's father is the originator of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. The many-worlds interpretation figures heavily in the work of Robert Anton Wilson, and so it was one of my Discordian brethren (Hail, Eris!) who said: "Hey, did you know that Hugh Everett has a son in some alt.rock band called Eels?" As soon as I heard 'em, I was gill-hooked, but good. 2005's "Blinking Lights and Other Revelations" was certainly a revelation to me -- a two-CD set of 34 songs without a stinker in the bunch. E has said it's about "God and all the questions related to the subject of God. It's also about hanging on to my remaining shreds of sanity and the blue sky that comes the day after a terrible storm, and it's a love letter to life itself, in all its beautiful, horrible glory." For me, it also served as something of the soundtrack to the loss of my wife. I still can't listen to "The Stars Shine in the Sky Tonight" without completely losing my shit. Mr E knows from loss. His father, who barely interacted with him as a child, died when Mark was 19. His schizophrenic sister committed suicide in 1996, and two years later, his mother died of cancer. So much of E's music seems to encode all of this loss, along with a deep, dysfunctional social disconnect, and a visceral sense of confusion over who he is and what he should make out of all that's happened to him. But like all artists who resonate, Mark Everett seems to have an alchemical ability to transmute all of this sordid business into transcendent bits of sound poetry, music that, even when it's sad, the melodies, the musicality, the poetics, and all of its "beautiful, horrible glory" are so strong, it lifts up, rather than drags you down (at least, in this case, it does for me). Last year, the BBC released a wonderful documentary called "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives," which followed Mark Everett as he retraced the steps of his father, trying to learn more about the dad he never really knew and the physics theories he could never really understand. All in all, it's a rather quiet piece (not bad or boring, just quiet and small), but there are some truly potent moments, like when he hears his father's voice on tape for the first time, or when he finally figures out (basically) what the many-worlds interpretation really means, and when he hears himself on tape, in the background as a child, playing the drums and then bragging about how great he is. The scene where he describes finding, at 19, his dead father on the bed is one of the most heartrending things I've ever seen. That one scene explains at least half of the hit you get whenever partaking of an Eels' song. The entire BBC documentary used to be on YouTube, in four parts. Alas, it's been taken down. While links last, you can see it in two parts, on Veoh, here and here.



  1. Blinking Lights is brilliant as are all his records but Electro-Shock Blues is his masterpiece. It takes you on a sad crazed joyous journey and pulls you out the other end into another, better, world.

  2. i’ll second #1 here.

    there are many, many truly excellent eels albums, but “Electro-Shock Blues” is a true masterpiece.

    it’s one of those few truly beautiful things that’s born of tragedy.

    “Electro-Shock Blues was written largely in response to frontman Mark Oliver Everett’s (more commonly known as E) sister’s suicide and his mother’s terminal lung cancer. Many of the songs deal with their decline, his response to loss, and coming to terms with suddenly becoming the only living member of his family (his father having died of a heart attack in 1982; Everett, then 19 years old, was the first to discover his body).” – wikipedia

  3. Which is more about the deaths of his sister and mother. It’s an astounding piece. And has Lisa Germano, Jon Brion, T-Bone Burnett and a bunch of other interesting folks on it. I think Blinking Lights only trumps it for me because of the personal associations. And jesus, Beautiful Freak, Daisies of the Galaxy, Souljacker, they’re all amazing.

  4. I can’t believe anyone can even pick their favourite Eels album. Each one has such colour and light (and dark) in different ways. The disturbing nature of some songs on most albums (‘cept Daisy’s) still makes my skin crawl.

    If you haven’t read it – grab a copy of his auto biog “Things the Grandchildren Should Know”. I picked it up at his Melbourne show in 08, but it’s available via Amazon. He’s a very interesting guy.

  5. aw FLOW, now you’re making me feel bad for having done so!

    watching the documentary is great because it’s filled with all the beautiful music from all the albums. i can’t think of catchier tunes to set a beginner’s guide to Quantum Mechanics to.

    unfortunately, Veoh is asking me to install some windows only software in order to finish watching the second part, so i guess i’m done.

  6. Very glad to see the eels get some time in the limelight here on Boingboing, they’re easily one of my absolute favorite bands and I’ve never felt they got the attention they deserved. I even met one of my exes on the eels messageboard eight years ago!
    I’ve had the chance to see them live twice and if you never have I heartily suggest doing so since they tour pretty often and reinterpret their own songs in very interesting ways (not to mention their FANTASTIC covers). My favorite memory from one of their shows was after the houselights had come on and everybody was shuffling out their incredible drummer Butch quietly came out and did a cover of “Novacaine for the Soul” all by himself–only drums and voice, it was IMMENSELY charming (wish I could find a recording of that). After that the rest of the band came out and did a song or two, it was really funny to watch the flow of the crowd reverse and everybody get sucked back into the venue.
    Fortunately I’m starting to think the eels might be in for a resurgence of interest here in the States (they’ve always been big in England) since Mark co-wrote the score for Yes Man and it features a bunch of his songs, I didn’t know that going into the movie and was startled when I first recognized “Bus Stop Boxer” in the background.
    Anyway sorry about that meandering mess of personal recollections, just also wanted to say that the commenters before me who singled out “Electro-Shock Blues” are totally right for doing so, “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor” in particular absolutely destroys me every time I hear it. If any newcomers reading this just want to check out some tracks of theirs a few of my favorites are “It’s A Motherfucker”, “Selective Memory”, “World of Shit” and “Beautiful Freak”. What can I say, I’m particularly a big fan of Mr. Everett’s ability to write the most heartbreaking yet beautiful love songs.

  7. @ anyone, sorry this has nothing to do with this post but…

    Does anyone know a boingboing email I should use to forward an email to as a suggested blog post?

    I just got the most *amazing* spam email, soliciting me to become a spam emailer (with templates, details of wage, live help and training!). Never seen the likes before but I lol’d hard.

  8. @Pepsi_Max

    Dude the link is right there at the top of the page. It’s like the first one on the menu. In my professional opinion that link is the single most prominent one on every page of Boing Boing.

    Here, let me reproduce it to save you the occular-strain and retina-wear of looking:

    Suggest a link

  9. They showed this film as part of the “An Evening with Eels” tour. E was at his very best with The Chet providing incredible instrumentation on just about anything you could name and providing readings from the bio though the show. Awesome.

  10. Hey, you know, not to take away from “E”, his unique music, or his father’s utterly original interpretation of quantum physics – it is all undeniably compelling. But every time I hear about “E”, mentioned are the tragedies in life he has suffered – his father he barely new, his sister’s suicide et al. Well, let me tell you – that’s life. Everyone will lose loved ones and death however it is dealt, is always tragic. This bugs me because this is always the way “E”, Eels, and his relationship to his father is conveyed. It’s like the poor guy is type-cast. I will admit that “E” has managed to turn his tragedies into some very fine music, that his gift – but the suffering story is getting a bit old.

  11. I saw him last April in Toronto on the Evening with Eels tour, and I gotta say it was a pretty special gig.
    I thought that the documentary>performance format would be a little lame, but the way the documentary strung together music and relationship so well was a perfect setup to the show. I think the power came from the fact that everyone is accustomed to seeing a movie, and having a notion of being removed from the subject matter being portrayed, and then curtain dropped and all of those stories, memories and music was suddenly sitting right infront of you, as real as can be. At least I fell for it…

  12. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently the Eels provided the majority of the soundtrack for Jim Carrey’s latest yuk-fest, ‘Yes Man’. His co-star and blue-eyed Goddess Zooey Deschanel reportedly also contributed four songs of her own.

  13. E puts on a damn good show too. I saw him at one of the clubs on sunset strip. It seems that some of the best songs are always born from tragedy.

    Kudos to E for producing such intelligent pieces. His awareness is more expansive than most. Thanks Gareth for sharing this.

  14. Loved that doc, quiet and small is a good description for it. My fiance intro’d me to the Eels long ago, and I’ve loved them ever since. E’s music just tears me up inside.

  15. #9 Cupcake Faerie
    That’s a fair assertion, yet I think is still worth noting as many artists (painters, poets, novelists, musicians, etc.) usually take substantial time-off to cope. And some never return and quit there field entirely. Yet Mark Everett was quite the opposite, (and in some accounts), he became so involved with his music that he bordered on becoming a mad recluse.
    That said, I think E will get a new interpretation that you suggest, once he releases his next full-length album rather than occasional bits and movie themes. The new album will demarcate the new era, “the post tragedy Eels”, and then we all can move on.

  16. Never made the effort to try getting into Eels; my sadcore needs are met by American Music Club (and Mark Eitzel’s solo stuff), Red House Painters, Nick Drake, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Blue Nile, late 50s Sinatra, New Order, colonopenbracket, Glasvegas, Cure, Joy Division, Manic Street Preachers,.. (All filed under “miserable bastards” in Amarok, and all getting a lot of airplay these days, unfortunately :/ )

    That said, there’s not much of it that pulls me out into another better world at the end; perhaps I’ll give Eels a twirl.

  17. I too agree that Cupcake Fairies’ assertions are fair. Most of us have had heavy shit happen to us in our lives (I know I have), and at a certain age, you’re going to lose your parents, friends, siblings. I think what makes Mark Everett at least somewhat different is his bizarre relationship with his dad. They lived in the same house but barely ever spoke. The scene in the docu, in the graveyard, where he talks about, at 19, picking up the rigor mortis-stiff corpse of his father from the bed, holding him, and realizing that was basically the only intimate moment he’d ever had with him. I know that lots of people have different levels of affection and love in their families, but that strikes me as pretty extreme. And that sense of alienation, longing, and lack of connection, I think you can hear so clearly in Eels music (along with lots of other things).

    I got the impression from the docu that he came to some kind of terms with his dad through the journey he went on and that it healed wounds for him. So maybe his music will change somewhat as a result.

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