The “beard rock” meme is as suspect as the pensive press kit photos in which said beards frequently appear. Meaningfulness that can be worn is often meaningless, and there are few more telling masks than a great big bushy beard. Are we to believe that so many bands, in some mass somnambulant state, stumbled into the crosshairs of a camera and then chose the resultant image as their promotional face? This is a doubling of insincerity—a corrective against trying too hard that tries way harder. After all, those beards didn’t grow over night. There are true-believin’ exceptions both classic (Billy Gibbons) and modern (Pattern is Movement, My Morning Jacket), but otherwise this is a distracting, confounding trend. Leave it to Eels front man E (Mark Oliver Everett) to both take up and blow out the trend by fully committing and making his magnificent beard the conceptual starting point for new album Hombre Lobo.
Moving away from the often heartbreaking autobiographical material of career highs like Electro-Shock Blues and Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, this new material is, as its writer describes, “a set of songs about desire” written from the perspective of “a dignified old werewolf”. As much as listeners have learned to expect a twisted sense of humor from Everett, album opener “Prizefighter” indicates that he’s not kidding about his mission or the significance of his hirsute appearance. The song starts with a lupine howl carried over from 2001 Eels song “Dog Faced Boy”, and this dog/boy turned wolf/man is the character Everett inhabits throughout the album. There’s a temptation to resist this material for what it isn’t—namely another set of gorgeous downer dirges that he is so skilled at writing and performing. But to ignore it on those grounds would be a mistake. Much more focused and innovative than the too slight Souljacker or Shootenanny, Hombre Lobo is perhaps Everett’s most consistent “character work” to date.
Skillful sequencing has always figured largely into the success of Eels LPs, and it is crucial to this tale of a prowling wolf. “Prizefighter” is the bluesy opening strut, but “That Look You Give That Guy” is the lightly stepping response. Musically and lyrically, the two songs form a conversation of big confidence answered by beta male panic. On “Lilac Breeze”, the character pleads for satisfaction of physical wants—“Girl I want it bad” is the repeated phrase—but the song is relatively empty posturing next to “In My Dreams”, which is much more innocent and romantic. These dialectics give the impression of impulse control, as they transparently identify yearnings and then temper those very expressions of desire. Brash stalking theme “Tremendous Dynamite” explicitly conjures the album’s titular character as he offers commendation of the female object. The distorted vocals (used frequently on the album) seem more pronounced here, perhaps exaggerated to reach the pitch of the boast. The plodding, sludgy jam (courtesy of Koool G Murder on bass and Knuckles on drums) has a muscular sound Eels should more fully explore.
The album somewhat loses its steam halfway through, only because the flow starts to feel too predictable. “Fresh Blood”, on which the howl returns with gusto, would be the natural follow-up to “Tremendous Dynamite”, but “The Longing” rests between the two songs and kills the momentum. While “The Longing” is a perfectly serviceable ballad, it seems to exist here only to maintain the study in contrasts that works so well on the early section of the album. But the more interesting choice would be to shift “The Longing” nearer to the conclusion so that “Fresh Blood” and “What’s a Fella Gotta Do” could finish the story “Tremendous Dynamite” so compellingly begins.
Minor arc squabbles aside; the album closes strongly. There’s never been a more efficient Eels single contender than “Beginner’s Luck”, a song every bit as addictive as Strokes juggernaut “Last Nite”, which it strongly resembles. The final section of the album also acknowledges the intimate sound associated with Everett’s autobiographical work. “All The Beautiful Things” could be a life-affirming sequel to “Dead of Winter” from Electro-Shock Blues. Closer “Ordinary Man” maintains the rest of the album’s straightforward recognition of atmosphere and feeling, but the character of the wolf seems almost entirely gone. In fact, the lyrics could be interpreted as some of Everett’s most confessional yet: “No one has a right/Until they’ve fought my fight/To understand just where I’m coming from/And it’s that fight that brought me here today.”