“Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled… and the miserable is everyone else. Be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”
For over two decades Mark Oliver Everett (AKA ‘E’) has been successfully documenting the ‘horrible’ and the ‘miserable’ interspersed with redemptive bursts of “I’M ALIVE! ALIVE I TELL YOU”, “SMELL THE FLOWERS!” and “LISTEN TO THE BIRDS!”. Alas not without good reason. The tragedies surrounding his life have been vividly documented not only in the now ten albums released as Eels, but the jaw-dropping, life-affirming autobiography Things the Grandchildren Should Know: a ‘you-couldn’t-make-it-up’ picaresque tale of suicide, salvation, cancer, cocaine, beards, booze, MTV, mental illness, spooky kooks in creepy castles, terrorists, divorce, quantum physics and painting “FUCK SCHOOL!” in massive letters over the school entrance. It’s perhaps telling that during his youthful scampery one frequently heard local saying was “That looks like something Mark Everett would do.”
The modestly-titled Wonderful, Glorious arrives then three years after Eels’ ambitious, exhaustive trilogy of Hombre Lobo (the frisky one), End Times (the divorcey one) and Tomorrow Morning (the Phoenixy one). It’s fair to say Wonderful continues the worldly-wise, walkin’ back to happiness optimism of the latter but hold the Moët party people as this is still an Eels record. Happiness is an elusive, contrary devil. Musically though this is very much a catalogue compendium of “All things Eels”.
Everett is evidently aiming to bow out of this cruel world kickin’ n’ screamin’ as a good half of Wonderful bites tough cookies. “Bombs Away” opens the gate with noirish threat. A ‘60s undercover spy tip toein’ with a smudge ‘n’ smear of snarling greasy, rockabilly guitar. Everett snarls and surls with malevolent mischief, “I’ve had enough of being a mouse… Bombs away! Gonna shake the house”. A wolf pacing the yard, a sparkling fuse, “I will be heard!” The twisting contortions of “Kinda Fuzzy” swiftly swap funky backbeat verses for a spitting hellfire Led Zep “Black Dog”-esque slam dancin’ chorus “Don’t mess with me I’m up for the fight!” E’s bravado is characteristically fleeting, dampened by moments of self doubt, lit here with melodic sunset melancholy. “The moment I think I’ve got it it’s gone.” First single “Peach Blossom” offers an early high. E’s cocky “D’ya feel lucky punk?” gruff monologues shot down by a killer bee swarmin’ buzzsaw riff. Big, goofy fun it’s cheeky enough to sign-off with a flashy reprise of (Eels’ enormo hit) “Novocaine For the Soul”‘s music box trademark.
The confrontational “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” heels-in-the-dirt swagger extends to “New Alphabet” and “Stick Together”. The former wrapped in an exoskeleton of blues guitar, sly catwalk bass, bad ass Bonham beats, earthquake chorus and steel-eyed stare. A broody, barroom brawler. “Together” is a hip shakin’ rumblemania—big band Busby Berkeley opulence, swinging ‘40s drum tattoo, handclaps and dance-offs. Impossible to sit through without busting some suitably bombastic n’ elaborate dance moves. This sense of new found playfulness is most evident though on the uproarious “Open My Present”. Everett is recast as a five-year old, dribbling, green-eyed, demonic hyperbrat, stomping his slippers and leering “Look at it! Wrapped up in little pink bows! I WANNA OPEN MY PRESENT.” A rugrat Iggy Pop in pyjamas, it is deliciously daft.
It’s traditionally Eels’ heartbreakers though that cut the deepest. “Railroad Man”, “It’s a Motherfucker”, “If You See Natalie” etc, etc. Vulnerability. Truth. Heart. Despite the mountain shaking Wonderful does find space for sorrow, introspection. The slight, countryfried wistfulness of “The Turnaround” could’ve found a loving home on Blinking Lights or one of the original Man in Black’s American albums. “In the ring so long / Gotta prove ‘em wrong.” Bruised but defiant it sadly parts too soon. The Dylan-esque midnight, tumbleweed drift of “The Turnaround” strikes stronger. An exhausted crawl along the lonesome highway, “Never trusted anyone / I always bit the hand that beat me.” A slowburn which smokes and rises to its tempestuous conclusion. “I Am Building a Shrine” opens another trunk of memories. Its opening verses conjuring the sombre, stormy skies over ‘90s Seattle before a typically Eels’ ray of sunshine – alongside some Star Trek theremin—illuminates the healing heart chorus.
Despite a renewed spirit Wonderful, Glorious doesn’t really break much new musical ground for Eels and occasionally suffers by comparison with former glories. The ambient “Accident Prone” is too slight to stick and “True Original” aims for a Zippos-in-the-air ‘neath the stars moment but fails to relight the fires of yore. The hypnotic, strangely pretty “You’re My Friend” does though trigger some new possibilities. Evolving slowly, brick-by-brick over a spooky, spidery, almost eight-bit glitchy videogame backing it stands as Glorious’ freak unique and extends an inviting hand toward exciting new avenues. Though Wonderful ultimately lacks the narrative arc of Eels’ best work it does conclude with the hootenanny-to-heaven title track. A funkalicious ‘70s groove leads the parade up the long white steps toward the pearly gates, skippin’ ‘n’ a shakin’, hands aloft, Hallelujah! Celestial choirs, the spiralling ghost of “Dear Prudence” and our cheery compère in top hat ‘n’ tails leading a chant “WONDERFUL! GLORIOUS!”. It proves a charming and oddly moving last dance.
Eels’ albums, by and large, fall into two categories. The good and the great. Wonderful, Glorious sits comfortably and contentedly in the former. If you’ve enjoyed Eels before you will find much to enjoy again here. It’s a solid reminder of “We are Eels, this is what we do”. Glorious is consistently captivating if perhaps a lighter serving of Eel, marginally missing the masterful, cathartic storytelling and haymaker knockout punch of their finest work. That aside, a good Eels’ record is still a Wonderful thing.
// Notes from the Road
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