Listen to this track by LA-based concern with a penchant for vivid narratives Eels, led by head songwriter E (neé Mark Oliver Everett). It’s “Susan’s House”, the second single off of the band’s debut record Beautiful Freak in 1996.
This song, and its fellow single “Novocaine For The Soul” made a splash particularly in Britain where both of singles gained top ten chart showings. The success of this song surpassed that first single in the UK, quoting a piano figure from Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Love Finds It’s Own Way“, and generally being a langourous and restful-sounding record, released in May of 1997 just as summer approached.
But, of course, there is plenty of restlessness to be found here in the urban landscape as traversed by the narrator as he makes his way to the titular location. There is plenty of tragedy, too. It makes one wonder whether this song isn’t just about a specific journey, but alludes to a greater one, too.
E is known for his deeply personal songwriting, and for an unflinching approach to looking at the human condition by drawing from some of the rawest experiences in his own life. Yet, his music isn’t overly earnest in order to provoke an emotional reaction from an audience. There are no calls for pity where the author is concerned, even if there are hints that a call for empathy may be the biggest driving force behind the music.
Above all, there is no trace of self-importance behind his songs. E’s music often touches on specific issues he’s dealt with personally, but it doesn’t make any pretence about fully understanding the mechanics of those issues. In the world which E evokes in his music, events that are very often disconnected from cause or reason just occur in people’s lives without warning, leaving them to struggle with the emotional fallout on their own. The songs get right down in the dirt with those dynamics. The vital thread running through the music is that we are connected to each other in common ways that have to do with love and pain, and with resolving what it all means so that we can continue living even after we’ve experienced the big, cruel, and nonsensical events that can change the course of our lives. That’s what makes his work so powerful.
This song is a prime early example of that approach, and adds yet another layer. This is a hero’s quest in pop song form, with a hero setting out to better his situation, having to go through the underworld to do so, and with the promise of enlightenment at the end. This is classic Joseph Campbell stuff, starting with a snapshot of southern Californian life, or at least a version of it; dead children at the hands of violence, young drug dealers with no other prospects for getting ahead, young children raising children of their own, and old people that have become distorted by hard lives.
This goes beyond a simple pattern of storytelling, and becomes something like a comment on the state of human experience for many. This is a landscape of tragedy and pain as created by social forces that are hard to understand fully. There is a sense of distance here as a result; the narrator is on his way somewhere, never stopping to get directly involved. The things he sees are just scenery at first. Yet, there is no distance in this song at the same time. Because even if this is songwriting-as-reportage, the narrator’s choice of reportage reveals his capacity for empathy, even if he doesn’t make himself a part of the scenes that are described. He is not unaffected by what he sees, even if one may get the impression that he is not entirely surprised by it. In the light of the journey, Susan’s House becomes not just a destination, but something of a sanctuary to which there is no equivalent in the lives of those he sees on the way. By virtue of his telling, he involves himself in their lives. And he involves us as listeners, too.
To me, the takeaway is simply that we all need a place like Susan’s house to go to in an often dangerous, unwelcoming, and absurd world where anything can happen at any time. This is another thing by which humanity is connected. There is no greater comfort then having a place to go and be safe, or at least feel that way for a while. No matter who we are, we are bound by this, just as we are bound by the experience of anguish in our lives to various degrees. Even if this song isn’t of the strident political variety, it’s one that reminds us of what happens when we forget about each other, and about the basic humanity of those we see on our way every day.
It reminds us too that sometimes, it will be our turn to be on our way to Susan’s house on some days. At other times, we will find ourselves as a part of the scenery to someone else’s journey there. Only the question of empathy remains.
Eels is an active musical concern today. You can learn more about Eels and E at eelstheband.com.
As it happens, Eels have been around long enough by now (two decades, somehow!) to have played the Royal Albert Hall.
You can watch their full concert there, filmed in June of 2014 right here, kids.
Speaking of which, the live album of that show, Eels Live At Royal Albert Hall was released last week. So, be sure and pick that up.