Electro-Shock Blues (1998) ****
A five-star album if you are in precisely the right mood, a mere three-star album if you aren't: you do the math. Problem is, I haven't had a loved one die on me in quite a few years, so many that I have to think hard on it (not counting beloved pets, of course). Yes, this is a concept album concerning the scythe of the Ol' Reaper, unmistakably inspired by a pair of recent deaths in E's nuclear family: the lyrics are bluntly artless and there's no mistaking the specific subject matter, the specific real-life deaths that E is eulogizing on this long-player (and its great fault is that: it's l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g). The song-cycle begins by setting the scene of "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor," from a drug-inflicted suicidal overdose, and matters do not get cheerier from there. Luckily, as we have seen from my previous reviews, E is contemporary pop's meisterburger of despondent clinical depression infused in sickly sweet pop nougats, so it's a listenable pop album despite the morbid weight of the subject matter. But boy, can it get rough going, and not just because of the lyrics. The songs are so crushingly sad that E seems determined to avoid anything so trite as hooks: an easy way in would make the songs seem too trivial, y'know? Whatever, this is probably superior to any similarly hookless Lou Reed character-sketch concept LP, and just as fun (which is to say - no, not fun at all). On the first few listens the album seems non-descript, an emotional and wordy confessional album that certainly benefited the artist's therapeutic purging more than the listener's auditory pleasure. And in truth, none of the songs truly stand out as knock-you-out highlights: it's a seamlessly flowing concept album, and unlike most concept albums, the songs really do need to be experienced together as an album's flow of tracks - the whole, in this case, genuinely is greater than the sum of its parts. Many of the songs seem fragmentary, or are literally fragmentary, such as the aforementioned album opener, whose ghostly presence in background melody floats over the succeeding two tracks like - well, a ghost (and not just because track #2 is entitled "Going to Your Funeral"). The tracks aren't stitched together musically a la Abbey Road, but they do flow together in such a thematic way that it's difficult to imagine them as separable, or in any other sequence.
Which is another problem: for whatever reason, E has decided to save the best for last. There are good songs scattered throughout the first 11 tracks, particularly "Speed," a pretty acoustic ballad that is only marred by a wincingly trite lyric, "Life is funny, but not ha ha funny," that bumps up like an uncomfortable lump in the throat. Oh well, he's not the world's greatest lyricist, even if he does manage the ocassional coup, such as this album's most oft-quoted line, "Grandpa's watching video porn / With the closed-caption on". And there's the ocassional bad song, as well: I know that the jazzy shuffle, "Hospital Food," is supposed to be a touch of goofy humor designed to lighten the painfully morbid mood, and I can see how it's necessary, but as E has no discernible gift for cracking a joke or even a smile, it comes as irritatingly hectoring. But just as you're ready to write this off as a mildly interesting but unexceptional exercise in Plastic Ono Band self-confessional, beginning with track #12, E trots out his trusty acoustic and hits you over the head with his talent, as the remaining five songs are not only deeply, heartbreaking emotional (hell, the whole album is - have you been paying attention?) but effectively moving musically as well. I suspect that the simple, unadorned singer-songwriter approach of the final five cuts (relatively unadorned - there's some rather obtrusive orchestration in the background) has everything to do with it. Oh yes, I've dwelt so much on the lyrical side of things that I've almost forgotten to mention the actual music, haven't I? There's a mild hip-hop influence that shows up most firmly (and a bit awkwardly) on the album's most commercial track, "Cancer for the Cure," (with a title like that for the catchiest A-side, you can see why this wasn't a blockbuster), and "The Medication is Wearing Off". Mostly this is E-music, however, with toy-like children's instruments mixing with E's world-weary nicotine rasp, his confessional singer-songwriting with the musical focus squarely on the lyrics, and heavy-handed background orchestrations mixing with the conventional alt.rock.
Best lyric: "I was at a funeral the day I realized I wanted to spend my life with you." Read that line again if you didn't get the tragic implication the first time around.