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Comfortably Numb

 

Eels: Shootenanny!

Dreamworks, 2003

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: June 28, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

In the past, Eels mastermind E (Mark Oliver Everett, to the IRS) has mined a kind of sublime beauty from despair. The band's first four full-length efforts -- 1996's Beautiful Freak, '98's Electro-Shock Blues, 2000's Daisies of the Galaxy and 2001's Souljacker -- contain pockets of orchestral pastiche-pop that have sparked curious comparisons to Beck, whose earnest irony has never quite approached the swirling air of deadpan melancholy so effectively demonstrated on Freak's breakthrough single "Novocaine for the Soul." Beck, tellingly, had to abandon his hyperactive, post-modern cut-and-paste aesthetic to address personal issues on last year's hype-bloated Sea Change, while E has consistently and confidently explored far bumpier emotional terrain (particularly the specters of cancer and death that loom over Electro-Shock Blues) via a much subtler ethereality that has proven more convincing than any of Beck's amorphous modes.

Almost none of which applies to Shootenanny!, which largely tosses out the loopy musical excursions and surrealistic pillow fights of past albums for a tighter, sparer approach. There's much less that's either beautiful or freakish about Shootenanny's perfunctory arrangements, although they do fall on the pleasant side of serviceable. Jangly guitar ditties ("Saturday Morning," "Dirty Girl") coexist peacefully with bluesier structures ("Agony," the horn-accented opener "All in a Day's Work"). But if Shootenanny! isn't as flashy with its pop adornments as past albums, there are occasional glimmers of prettiness, blink-and-you'll-miss-them glimpses of the kind of atmospherics found on earlier discs (most notably on "Agony," "Somebody Loves You," "Numbered Days" and "Fashion Awards"). But the thriftier production does serve a purpose. The relative sameness of the tracks builds to a kind of easy familiarity: the medium, then, is part of the message.

Not that Shootenanny! traffics in anything so banal as an obvious "message." Sure, there are connecting thematic threads in the whole of the Eels catalog --most of them along the lines of "shit happens, and then you die" -- but E's not in the habit of passing off his bleak character studies as any kind of life lessons. And, thankfully, he knows it. His milieu may be one of numbing despondency and self-flagellation, but he's no more a doom-and-gloom prophet than noir writers like Jim Thompson are advocates of criminal behavior. It'd be a horrendous cliché to call E a journalist, but his sketches of hopelessness do delineate the topography of misery and isolation with first-hand accuracy. (Can any listener of Electro-Shock Blues doubt this?) In short, he does what all good writers do: he writes what he knows.

Of course, it'd be ridiculous to assert or even speculate that misery is all E knows, but like all of its predecessors, Shootenanny! proves it's terrain he knows intimately. "Don't have too many friends/ never felt at home," he intones matter-of-factly on "Love of the Loveless," a statement of solidarity with sadness that seems to take solace in its narrator's self-awareness, almost pitying those who don't embrace the obvious: "All around you, people walkin'/ empty hearts and voices talkin'/ looking for and finding/ nothing." On "Rock Hard Times," he asserts "No one's laughing, least of all not me/ it's hard to laugh as you choke;" later, he fairly chirps "Hope you like the rotten stench/ of doom." "Agony" paints a portrait of a man convinced he's "not gonna be allright," mournfully realizing that "All I've got to show/ for the seeds that didn't grow/ is agony." And the toe-tapping "Lone Wolf" almost serves as the album's manifesto: "I am a lone wolf/ I always was, and will be/ I feel fine, I am resigned to this," E casually sings in its opening bars before launching into a studied falsetto in the chorus.

While the Spartan production underlines the songs' relaxed melancholy, the tunes' poppy underpinnings seem to infuse the proceedings with an air of resigned optimism, girded by a couple of atypically hopeful numbers. On "Saturday Morning" E inhabits the carpe diem mentality of a kid looking to squeeze as much playtime as possible into a day free of school or familial obligations. The closing "Somebody Loves You," meanwhile, is initially jarring in its contradiction of the album's dominant mood. "I think you're gonna be fine," E drawls, following with a string-laden chorus of "Somebody loves you/ and you're gonna make it through." Elsewhere, he cautions that "You've got to be sure when you turn out that light/ that it's going to turn on again/ you've got to be your good friend."

Such trite sentiment has roughly the same effect as a splash of cold water on the listener, and would sink Shootenanny! completely if it weren't for E's deadpan delivery and flashes of his trademarked trenchant lyricism: "Woke up with a bang/ and a bug on your face," he begins. "It crawled in your mouth/ and gave you a taste/ of the good life/ that you left behind." And soon afterward, he concedes "This nagging malaise/ is more than a phase." Thus, the song isn't so much an about-face of Dr. Phil can-do attitude as it is a guarded acknowledgment that generally, the situational bleakness experienced by his characters isn't fatal. Of course, that doesn't discount their honest misery, either. The narrator of "Restraining Order Blues" may be legally barred from touching the love of his life, but he takes refuge in a kind of sweet denial, lamenting that "Everybody knows that I'm not a violent man/ just someone who knows he's in love."

Life does go on, however imperfectly: "I like/ waking up after a bad dream/ makes it feel like life ain't bad," as E muses on "The Good Old Days." And in its more affecting moments, that's exactly the feel Shootenanny! achieves. Beneath the album's darkest-midnight cover, the half-hearted stab at pun-fueled mirth of its title and the seemingly unrelenting gloominess of its subjects lurks a resignation to keep plowing ahead. Not, as Hamlet might suggest, "to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them;" that kind of determination is far too Neil Peart for E, too close to an actual message. In Rush's "Roll the Bones," Peart shrugs off life's vicissitudes: "Why does it happen?/ Because it happens." E's characters aren't as stoic; they're content to wallow in and whine about fate's cruelties. But they also make their own kind of peace with the unlivable, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and in the process create their own half-hearted nobility. Those are the moments Shootenanny! so effectively, and so candidly, illuminates.

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