Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment

It pays to be young, tragic, and talented in the '00s. A couple of years ago, our generation frowned upon the lay-me-bare memoir and the confessional song. The mere mention of such things conjured horrible images of James Taylor turning his heroin addiction into nursery rhymes or Elizabeth Wurtzel dining on Prozac while doing a Butthole Surfer behind a Dallas nightclub. The notion of someone telling all held as much allure as a stranger sitting down next to you at a bar, spilling his guts as the bartender yelled, "Last call!"

Now, look around you: They won't shut up. Suddenly our tight-lipped generation, weaned on irony and between-the-quotation-marks detachment, can't stop talking about our agony, our heartbreak, our mommies and daddies. Who needs therapy when there's a computer or a microphone or a camera waiting to document your every word and whimper? An analyst? Dude, try an audience.

Look no further than your TV set. There's Christopher Titus, the thirtyish Los Angeles-based stand-up comic whose new self-titled Fox series chronicles "the heartbreakingly hilarious world of his dysfunctional family," which consists of an alcoholic dad and a mentally ill mother confined to the "wacko basket." Or take Dave Eggers, author of the much-lauded A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The former Might magazine founder and McSweeney's editor's autobiography recounts his family's tragedies (Eggers lost both his parents within five months to cancer), how he was forced to raise his eight-year-old brother pretty much by himself, and how he went on to hang with the leading postmodern (i.e., footnote-fetishistic) authors of his me-so-smart generation. The book, which does indeed feature introductory sections with titles such as "The telling the world of suffering as means of flushing or at least diluting of pain aspect," comes complete with a thematic diagram that begins with "THE DEATHS." It then allows the reader to choose two separate paths, one of which deals with "much thinking about the triumph of the human spirit," while the other offers "much thinking about the inevitability of decay, and early and random death and the short life of anything real or beautiful." (Laughter and tears! Bring on the movie!)

Beneath that, perhaps, should be a picture of Mark Oliver Everett, a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter whose electro-shock blues album from 1998, and its followup, Daisies of the Galaxy, chronicle how he has spent the last handful of years dealing with his mother's death (again, from cancer) and his sister's mental illness and suicide, and how he, at the tender age of 36, is the sole surviving member of his family. You do not need to struggle to decipher Everett's albums -- all recorded under the name E and released under the name the eels -- because the man hides nothing. His language is so plain, Raymond Carver's novels read like binary code in comparison; the music, which ranges from a lone distorted guitar to an emotive string section, also doesn't conceal a single feeling. Then there are the song titles from electro-shock blues: "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor," "Going to Your Funeral Part I," and "Hospital Food."

Sometimes Everett will slip into character. He is Elizabeth, singing about how "waking up is harder when you wanna die." More often, he is just the observer, the last man standing: "Going to your funeral now and feeling I could scream/Everything goes away." Parts of it are morbid; others, almost funny. More often it's a little bit of both: "Grandpa's happy watching video porn with the closed caption on/Father knows best about suicide and smack." Everett even now can't understand why people like to describe electro-shock blues as "depressing." He insists it's an upbeat record about how when there's nothing left to lose, the only thing left is hope.

"I'm proud of what I did with electro-shock blues, proud that it deals with what it deals with," Everett says. "I actually think it's the most positive record I'll ever make. I think it's mistakenly thought of as a depressing thing, but to me it's not. Also, people mistakenly will refer to it by saying I deal with the topics with a certain detachment, which I think is absolutely wrong. To me it's the opposite of detachment. It's complete immersion in the subject, because it was my life, and if that's your life, it just seems normal to you. You're human so you laugh, you cry, you eat, you sleep, you do all the things you do every day, and those things are going on during all of that, so you apply all of that to those subjects. If you're around someone who's dying -- and I've been around a lot of dying people and a lot of ill people -- they're just people, and you talk to them like regular people. You joke and you have fun and you even joke about dying. I don't know why it's such a strange thing for other people."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky