Even for an artist whose work has been defined by raw emotion and introspective self-searching, Eels’ recent concert at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom was, unfortunately, a literally autobiographical evening.
Eschewing an opening act, Eels principal Mark “E” Everett presented a documentary he directed about his father. The film, a wryly probing attempt to understand the distant genius physicist by interviewing those who knew him best, cast a gloom of wry emotional abandonment over the room. “I know why you’re all here,” Everett later told the seated audience. “Because I’m the son of a famous physicist.”
After a deep voice on the PA (presumably Everett’s father or God watching from the above) boomed that “the following is a true story,” Everett came out and performed a number of unaccompanied songs on an electric guitar, with touching renditions of “Magic World” and “It’s a Motherfucker.” Everett was then joined by regular collaborator Jeffrey Lyster (a.k.a. the Chet), who provided spirited accompaniment on drums, guitar, keys, lap steel and saw, among others.
The set’s flawlessly constructed first half flowed through the band’s early catalog. Following by a boot-stomping “Souljacker Pt. I” with Everett and the Chet on electric guitars, Eels settled into a haunting suite featuring emotionally and physically crippled protagonists. “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor” and “Climbing to the Moon,” among the most wounded songs in Everett’s catalog, wove a haunting pall out of which emerged the optimistic “My Beloved Monster” and the perky “I Like Birds,” building to an anthemic crescendo.
Halfway through, Everett’s engaging self-reflection took a turn into interminable self-indulgence from which the show never fully recovered. Eels broke for ten minutes so Everett could read banal fan mail and share recent concert reviews, devoid of amusing mock humility or self-deprecatory pride. Then the Chet read a five-minute excerpt from Everett’s autobiography. Hearing his sideman read an anecdote about a random run-in with Angie Dickinson, with requisite funny voices and sunglasses props? The discomfort in the room was embodied in nervous, embarrassed laughter from a crowd ready to get back to the music.
One reading down, Eels played another number before another interminable selection from Everett’s new book. How long could this plug go on? Everett’s greatest strength as a lyricist is the opaque examination of emotionally torment protagonists. And he is among the best enunciators in rock today; his carefully chosen lyrics matter to him. Hearing exactly what he was thinking as he wrote these songs, from a published text, removed all wonder. It’s certainly possible to research how the magician saws the lady in half, but where’s the pleasure in showing you the how the trick works before it’s performed?
The awkward atmosphere after the book promotions was partially lifted by an atonal, bombastic take on “Novocaine for the Soul,” a gorgeous piano/musical saw duet on “Bus Stop Boxer” and a frantic “Flyswatter” in which Everett and the Chet seamlessly switched positions from piano to drums and back again. Even with two members, Eels can rock you and touch you with effortless grace.
“You done good,” the booming voice reassured Everett at the close of the evening, and from a musical standpoint the sentiment was spot-on. Rallying from such leaden strategic misfires in the middle of a set takes a talented, charismatic performer. But many great musicians have written fascinating autobiographies, and most have the good sense and restraint to keep the each medium on the appropriate stage.