Eels, Royal Albert hall, London

Shining light in the darkness
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The Independent Culture

Mark Everett, aka E, and Eels' only constant, prefaces tonight with a short film, by way of explanation as to where he's at. It intercuts blasts of his thrilling pop music with footage of him seething and snapping at the dignity-stripping media machine he's had to mince himself through to promote it. His refusal to do so much since his big 1996 hit "Novocaine for the Soul" explains why he's sunk back into cult status, albeit a cult still big enough to fill the Albert Hall.

E's sister committed suicide and his mother died of cancer around the same time, compounding the depression that already ran deep in the musician. He has had more losses since, and current double-album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is only the latest in a torrent of heartfelt, death-haunted music. The comfort of making it has literally saved his life.

Stubbornness is another element in E's survival, against which he has smashed all the rules of pop success, until he can now play what and how he wants. He comes on like an alt.rock Sinatra, in a homburg and black suit, with a cigar that glows like brimstone in the dark. A glamorous string quartet and old, weird instruments - zithers, mandolins and theremins - dominate his current band; E taking his seat at a saloon pianola, with a dustbin serving as a drum. "Son of a Bitch" soon introduces his theme of domestic darkness. "It's a Motherfucker", pretty like an Old Hollywood score tonight, begins the visits to the cancer ward - the past which, as he sings on a soft song later, "doesn't let me run too fast". The resilience of the council to a would-be suicide in "If You See Natalie" similarly explores an emotional zone most listeners have knowledge of, but most pop ignores. E's death- battered life means he can't.

"Railroad Man" is equally heartfelt, about the obsolescence of honest endeavour. As E stands in his old suit, strumming an acoustic guitar to pin-drop silence, he seems to hold back that future personally. Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" gives a nod to this venue's most famous pop player. And, like Dylan, E then proceeds to test his audience's patience to snapping point. A twitchy, theremin-haunted "Flyswatter" is dragged into free jazz, stygian discordance, which resolves into a raw, barked "Novocaine for the Soul". There goes the big hit.

The first encore gives some needed relief. A rattling "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)", about pain as the price of life, is a glimpse of the depth-charged pop career he could have had. But it's the third encore that shows E's sly convention-splintering at its best. The lights are up and I'm on my way home before I hear "Mr E's Beautiful Blues", and return to find the band playing it in their pyjamas, to a half-empty hall of grinning fans. One of pop's greatest malcontents just couldn't resist the last laugh.