The eels' Mark Oliver Everett and Beck Hansen sound like the same man singing in the same muted voice. More often than not, theirs is a mournful whisper and a flat drone, the echo of a thought rather than a spoken word. And their music's so similar, it belongs in the same bin, beneath the label that reads: "Hybrid." It's pop only by default: In a perfect world, Everett and this year's Hansen would likely replace guitars with violins and trade snares for timpanis. These boys play small but think big, which works well when you've got those suicide blues and need a song to disappear into. "A final curse / Abandoned curse / We rode disowned / Corroded to the bone," Beck grumbles, glockenspiel and synth swirling around him; to which Everett might add, "You're dead, but the world keeps spinning."
Those writers who have been describing Beck's Mutations as a "folk" album must have thought 1996's Odelay was gangsta rap. This album's simple melodies are made complicated flesh-and-blood by a top-notch band and a guy who proves after all this time he can sing without having to trip over a grab-bag's worth of sonic gimmicks. There's nothing here as rocking as "Novacane," nothing as up as "Devils Haircut," though the single "Tropicalia" sounds good on the radio. Rather, Mutations is better defined by a song like "Dead Melodies" (which sounds like something off Rubber Soul) or "We Live Again," a harpsichord watercolor in which a "desolate wind turns shit to gold and blows my soul crazy." These are lovely songs, never impenetrable even when Beck's "looking through sex-colored windows dredging the night," whatever the hell that means.
Everett (who goes by the letter E) is less inclined to bury his intentions beneath obscure poetry. Electro-Shock Blues, the eels' second album, is beautiful, dreary, catchy, hard to take but even harder to stop listening to; never has an album about death gone down so easy. Everett is obsessed with being the last living member of his family, which is why he writes songs called "Going to Your Funeral" (in two parts), "Cancer for the Cure," "Dead of Winter," and "Hospital Food." "Waking up is harder when you want to die," he sings in that mumbled voice, and it sounds as though he's about to embark upon the endless slumber. Sometimes you wish he'd lighten up, but the music's so beautiful and tangled (banjos and organs undulate in the electropop), it's easy to get swept along this trip into one man's sadness and madness.
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