Eels frontman E (aka Mark Oliver Everett) is a funny guy. Seriously. Over the course of three albums he has established himself as a hero to loners, sad sacks, and the disenfranchised. But he can also crack you up. Mixing pop melodies with hip-hop beats, light piano and strings over crunchy guitar parts, and switching gears in songs from style to style have been a signature of each Eels record, as has the clever word play of E’s lyrics. And you can’t help but smile. Eels’ first album, Beautiful Freak, was full of songs depicting society’s ills, songs of someone personally affected by the modern world. It was after this album appeared that both E’s mother and sister died, leaving him the last of his family. The next album, Electro-Shock Blues, was a direct result of E’s grief, and may stand as one of the saddest records ever created. The songs on Daisies of the Galaxy were of a lighter mood, though the lingering sadness of the singer was still very evident. That records final (and cleverly unlisted) track “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” was a signpost pointing towards a more upbeat outlook.
Which brings us to Eels’ newest release, Souljacker. The song that most exemplifies that E has moved on from his grief is the aptly titled “World of Shit”. With the words “I spent so many days / Just staring at the haze / And I think that that’s a book / That I don’t have to write again”, it’s clear he no longer dwells on his losses. He has resurfaced back into the world. “What Is This Note?”, the album’s closer, is an overt love song, but only in the lyrics. Musically, it starts out like a kick to the head, all fuzzed-out guitars and processed vocals, and then alternates to a guitar riff straight out of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”. The song ends with a long eastern-sounding outro of acoustic guitars and maracas. (Maracas appear in almost every song on this album, and even get a nod in the liner notes.)
Juxtapositions have always been a feature of Eels albums. This has invited Beck comparisons, but Beck rarely gets as personal as this. While Beck seems to move from genre to genre, E is comfortable staying within the classic pop structure, while at the same time turning it upside down. “That’s Not Really Funny” really is funny, starting with a cocktail lounge samba, then moving straight into a Peter Gunn/Secret Agent Man guitar riff. “Jungle Telegraph” is just what the title suggests, a percussion-laden rocker that gives way to New Orleans-style jazz before righting itself back to a rock song.
One reason the guitar has made such a comeback on this album is E’s collaboration with John Parish (best known for his collaborations with PJ Harvey, along with many credits as producer). Parish brings a toughness to these songs, seven of which he co-wrote with E. The two men met in London and seem to have brought out the best in each other playing and writing wise. His touch is found everywhere, from the aforementioned guitar riffs to the controlled cacophony of the production of the louder songs. This is a rock record, after all.
Another difference with this new batch of songs is that E is writing more (obviously) in characters than on his past records. “Souljacker part I” is from the viewpoint of a serial killer, “Jungle Telegraph” the viewpoint of another type of killer. Many of these are the characters he saw walking around in “Susan’s House” from the Beautiful Freak album, but now it’s them written from within. But some other characters are much more familiar, if not to us, then to the singer. In “Dog Faced Boy” he is the outsider, ridiculed for being different. And the “Bus Stop Boxer” is just looking for his own place in the world. Perhaps these are not the views of characters the singer sings about, more likely they are his own. Sometimes a writer can reveal more about himself (sometimes more than he wants) writing in character than about themselves.
Souljacker is as strong as any of Eels previous albums, but even crawling through the muck there is a lot more joy and life here than heard before. “If you’re scared to die / You better not be scared to live” E writes in “Friendly Ghost”, and it seems he is taking his own advice.