Beautiful Freak, by Eels
Reviewed by Sara-Jane Davies
Prior to the inception of this eye-opening project, I would have told you – with some confidence – that my taste in music was quite wide-ranging and eclectic. That was before I saw the project’s album suggestion list and came to realise that I am aware of about 0.0005% of the music that’s out there.
Jade Bird is one I’m glad to have now heard of, Mr Bungle is one I wish I hadn’t. My eternal thanks will go to the Randomiser for somehow knowing I shouldn’t have that one allocated to me; ten seconds of each track was enough to bring on nausea. And I’m not even joking. I turned the same colour as the bloke on the album cover. Unsettling in the extreme.
Anyway. Now to Eels (or eels, or EELS). A group of which I had never heard – I know, surprising right? I deliberately didn’t look them up beforehand in too much detail as I wanted to be able to listen to the album with no preconceptions (apart from knowing it was melancholy).
But I’ve looked Eels up since and, first of all, I was quite surprised to learn that Beautiful Freak was released in 1996. It has a sound which transcends the musical confines of the ‘90s and, although you’d be hard-pressed to argue it has a 21st century feel to it, it definitely doesn’t have the obvious ‘90s sound I associate with other artists of the time.
It stands to reason that, as I hadn’t heard of the group, I wasn’t familiar with the lead single Novocaine for the Soul either. So I checked the UK charts for the week it entered (9th February 1997, new in at #10) and saw that the only songs I knew in the Top 40 (but, nonetheless, really liked, and have been known to blast from my car stereo on more than one occasion) were Say What You Want (Texas), Hedonism (Skunk Anansie) and On A Ragga Tip (SL2). Perhaps that’s a better indicator of how wide-ranging my musical taste is … ahem.
Is it accurate to say I enjoyed Beautiful Freak? It’s accurate as far as hearing something new goes, and as far as not having a clue what to expect goes, and as far as my sense of relief when I heard Mark Oliver Everett’s vocals goes; no death metal growling to sting MY prudish ears, thank you very much. I really liked the pace of the album, its apparent simplicity, and straightforward sound. I loved E’s vocals. On every track; including the spoken verses of Susan’s House.
It’s hard to choose a standout track – I appreciate all of them for one reason or another – but I think I have to go with Not Ready Yet. Your Lucky Day in Hell comes a close second. But I also really liked Rags to Rags, Flower, Mental – oh, I pretty much liked them all! The final track, Manchild, has definite echoes of REM’s Everybody Hurts – no bad thing, in my book.
The album makes me feel safe and unchallenged; maybe it’s the warmth of the production, or the benign – quite passive – energy it seems to give out. Having said that, I did find myself hoping for a “wow” moment, some kind of punch to the solar plexus, but none was forthcoming. There were no rewind, repeat moments for me (and, believe me, I am prone to doing that with sections of some tracks, over and over and over).
Beautiful Freak suited me. It’s an album with a distinct, if somewhat repetitive, style and sound. Despite having never heard it, it suited me so well that by track three I felt like I’d put on a brand new, yet strangely familiar, pair of slippers. That said, though momentarily tempted, I found I couldn’t put it on again straight away to listen through for a second time. But I’m glad we have been introduced and, when I need a sympathetic ear, or a link to someone who I think might understand, I’ll be sure to say “Alexa, shuffle the album Beautiful Freak”.
It’s a definite yes, and a very solid 6/10, from me.