For a society that doesn't often like to think about death or address its own mortality, Americans sure love songs about dead people. Few songwriting formulas are more commercial those that transform the tortured, complex emotions associated with grief into self-pitying schmaltz in which the gory unpleasantness of death is ignored and the holy suffering of the living is glorified. Case in point: "I'll Be Missing You," in which Puff Daddy pays tribute to his righteous, financially lucrative grief while ignoring the actual death of The Notorious B.I.G., bestowing upon his portly chum a song composed mostly of greeting-card sentiments. It's not easy to write about depression or grief in an honest and non-exploitative fashion, particularly when the death of a loved one provides such a juicy marketing hook. But E, the eccentric semi-genius behind the Eels, has, with Electro-Shock Blues, accomplished something pretty rare: an album about death and the tortured guilt and misery of the living that addresses its subjects in a clear-headed, unsentimental fashion. At its best, Electro-Shock Blues deserves to be mentioned alongside such masterpieces as Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers and The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds as albums that capture the essence of deep, soul-crushing depression on an almost visceral level. At its worst, E's dour lyrics sound like the hopelessly self-involved, self-pitying diary excerpts of a moody teenager. E doesn't always hit his target, but when he does, his songs are immensely powerful in their emotional delicacy and sonic fragility. Electro-Shock Blues is a true album: It deserves and demands to be heard in its entirety. Nothing here is quite as transcendent as its excellent first single, "Last Stop: This Town," and there are more than a few instances in which E seems to be losing the plot. But all in all, it's a remarkable achievement.
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