The dark clouds that trailed Mark Oliver Everett of Eels through the 1990s, and much of his life before then, were tenacious. When that decade was finally behind him, the man called E recorded what was probably his most hopeful collection of songs. In a very Eels way, then, it almost made sense that his sunny-sad third album Daisies Of The Galaxy — released 20 years ago today — would summon the attention of the George W. Bush presidential campaign, who publicly flagged it as an example of Hollywood perversion creeping into wholesome American lives.
“The CD had a storybooklike cover and had song titles such as ‘It’s A Motherfucker’… so they deduced that the storybook cover meant it was targeted for three-year-olds or something,” recalls Everett in his memoir Things The Grandchildren Should Know. “It was great. You could download my lyrics from the ‘George W. Bush For President’ website.” That level of negative attention coming from a future occupant of the White House might have fazed other musicians, but in a life like Everett’s it was as much an amusement as an irritant, another roadside attraction.
Eels being Eels, “It’s A Motherfucker” was not a rager but a sparing lament in the center of Daisies Of The Galaxy. Musically reminiscent of R.E.M’s “Nightswimming” but standing cinematically still, there was nothing more offensive about the song than raindrop piano plinks, understated strings, and missing your ex-girlfriend on a weekend: “It’s a motherfucker/ Getting through a Sunday/ Talking to the walls/ Just me again.” The principle guiding the album is resilience. It’s about being “A Daisy Through Concrete,” which, as that track so jauntily points out, tend to get stepped on.
A couple of years earlier, Electro-Shock Blues had been Eels’ zig-zagging walk through the valley of the shadow of death, in which Everett processed both his sister’s troubled life and suicide and his mother’s cancer diagnosis. The loss didn’t end there, though, as his mother didn’t pass away until after that sophomore album was released and Eels were on the road touring behind it. The wounds that were meant to be healing by the final fade-out of Electro-Shock Blues could have easily been reopened for Daisies Of The Galaxy. While it doesn’t lack its own moments of hurt and fear — like the passing thought in “Something Is Sacred” that fate could randomly send you under a highway to wear “newspapers for pants” — Everett confronted further loss with a kinder and gentler Eels.
Listening back, Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies Of The Galaxy now sound like an odd couple, co-dependent if not joined at the hip. Their moods were neither polar nor perfectly matched; if Electro-Shock Blues wore red, Daisies Of The Galaxy wore green. Both records were processing the same period in the life of their lone mastermind; the ecstatic highs of becoming an MTV darling on the back of Eels’ DreamWorks debut after years of dead-end day jobs and false starts, and the terrible lows of losing family. The Beautiful Freak phase had been almost too successful and threatened to make a two-hit wonder out of a former one-hit wonder, but Daisies pushed Eels into a more stable integrity.
Outside of California, and especially among the younger citizens of Alternative Nation, Everett’s first solo outing — two albums for Polydor Records in the early ’90s under the name “E” — was unfamiliar and already lost to pop history when he restarted as Eels. Still, the separation between E’s first radio hit (“Hello Cruel World”) and Eels’ first (“Novocaine For The Soul”) isn’t as stark as it would have been perceived in ’96. Everett had already showed a knack for lyrical soundbites in “Hello Cruel World” with lines like “Venus DeMilo grew an arm/ And Old MacDonald bought the farm.” “Novocaine For The Soul” amplified this habit so that every verse was ready for a T-shirt, from “Life is hard and so am I” to “Jesus and his lawyer are coming back.”
This is one of the reasons why Eels caught the occasional comparison to Beck back then. That, and the similarity of their lower vocal timbres, not to mention that Odelay was partly produced by the Dust Brothers and Beautiful Freak was partly produced by Michael Simpson, one of said Dust Brothers. Everett was also prone to tinkering with contemporary-minded techniques and trappings, be it the big ’80s reverb on “Hello Cruel World” or the spoken-word verse and sampling on Beautiful Freak’s “Susan’s House.” In particular, the beats on both of those songs immediately transport the listener to the specific era they come from.
“Novocaine For The Soul” could have numbed and buried Eels, but, like Nada Surf after “Popular,” they eventually got out from under it. Everett established a reputation as a songwriter of measured quality, not just of timely turns of phrase. Beautiful Freak’s sales figures meant Electro-Shock Blues had more eyes and ears on it than another album like it might have otherwise had. It also meant that, even armed with the instantly catchy quirk-hop single “Last Stop: This Town,” pleasing DreamWorks and pulling along casual fans wasn’t going to stay easy.
Daisies Of The Galaxy was the rope that allowed Eels to begin their escape from the crossfire of expectations that came with shooting fish in the Buzz Bin. The more upfront presence of acoustic guitar gave an initial impression of a folksy change in direction, but Eels were just as often playing to old strengths. In his memoir, Life On Planet Rock, former RIP magazine editor Lonn Friend tells of becoming an A&R guy for Arista Records in the mid-’90s, and how Eels slipped out of his grasp. Hanging out listening to Pet Sounds, Friend remembers Everett talking about how in his younger days he used to sit and write songs in front of the house where Ed Wood committed suicide, saying, “I go into dark places but try to find sweet melodies.”
Daisies Of The Galaxy demonstrated that Everett hadn’t lost that touch, but sometimes the places he went didn’t look as ominous as before. His search for light was officially on, and he took it wherever he could find it, starting with the simple things. Birds, for instance, and how he likes them: “I don’t care for walkin’ downtown/ Crazy auto-car gonna mow me down/ Look at all the people like cows in a herd/ Well I like… birds.” Strumming and chugging along, “I Like Birds” is, like a number of songs on the album, deceptively complicated and happy-go-lucky simple.
After his mother passed away, Everett moved some of her household possessions from Virginia to his place in Los Angeles, including her bird feeders and books on birds. “I set up my mom’s best bird feeder in the backyard and began feeding the birds as a way to stay connected to her,” he wrote in his memoir. There may be no significance to it, but, between past interviews and his own writing, it can be interesting what Everett chooses to leave out and when. In one interview in 2000, he acknowledged that building a backyard structure in which to meditate led to songs like “I Like Birds,” but doesn’t mention the link with his mother’s bird feeder. (Similarly, apropos of the old Beck comparisons: In a Rolling Stone feature from that same year the interviewer catches Everett off guard knowing that he was then living in Beck’s old house, but it’s hard to find mention of this factoid anywhere else.)
Daisies Of The Galaxy is neither a movie soundtrack nor a concept album, but frequently it sounds like one or the other. Muted fanfare greets the opening tune named for 1950s film star Grace Kelly. “Flyswatter” rocks within a compressed Danny Elfman motif and appropriately was inspired by watching Everett’s cat assert the natural order of things with the mice and spiders lurking in his basement. The heartbreak scene of “It’s A Motherfucker” follows right after “Flyswatter,” and a few tracks later the ambulatory jazz shuffle of “A Daisy Through Concrete” sounds like the protagonist has a spring back in his step. Concept-wise, even shallow analysis finds potential themes like animals and insects (birds, mice, tigers, flies, and spiders), blues, and, naturally, daisies. There’s not much less connective tissue there than Brain Salad Surgery really offered.
Despite Daisies being noticeably more upbeat than its predecessor, DreamWorks felt the album needed an overt mood-lifting single; more “Novocaine For The Soul” and not more “Cancer For The Cure.” The way Everett tells it, he resisted for months as the album sat shelved, until one day he woke up in a good mood and wrote “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues,” which the label then insisted on including, to which he countered that it had to be hidden at the end. “At least it wouldn’t disrupt the flow of the album before it,” he explained in Things The Grandchildren Should Know. “I asked them to put 10 seconds of silence between the last track of the album, ‘Selective Memory,’ and the new bonus track. Then, at the last minute, I called the mastering lab myself and had them sneak in another 10 seconds so there would be 20 seconds of silence after what I considered the perfect ending of the album and before this bonus track came blaring on.”
Not to quibble with the artist’s vision, and it’s rarely the cool choice to side with a major label, but this was one instance where The Man was right even if his motive was lame. Daisies Of The Galaxy is a very structured album and “Selective Memory” is a very intentional closer. But when have things ever gone according to plan for E and Eels? Now, in a callback to Electro-Shock Blues, the album would be bookended by “Grace Kelly Blues” and “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues,” two blues that weren’t blues on an album about trying to leave the blues behind. “Goddamn right it’s a beautiful day” was the kind of parting statement required not just by Daisies, but by the cycle started with Electro-Shock.
At the same time, Everett’s nitpicking was also the right call. “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” can’t leap out from behind the curtain like “Train in Vain” — a deep breath is needed. Why does 20 seconds work better than 10? It’s not easy to articulate, but it does. The irrational demand produced a rational result.
Notions of “rational” and “irrational” get jumbled up in Everett’s work. He has been unafraid to put the bleak ends of his life into his music, but on those early Eels albums a certain restraint is always there to reel them in and offer balance. He had gone through enough personal turmoil that he could have made Dashboard Confessional sound like Jason Mraz if he wanted to. Everett did seem to have in mind a place for himself within the same songwriter lineage as Randy Newman and Brian Wilson, so maybe it was a need to keep their kind of narrative perspective. Or maybe it was all down to one line in “Jeannie’s Diary”: “She could have anything she wants/ So why not me?” Irrational optimism could be entirely rational in Eels’ galaxy.