(Vagrant Records; 2013)
By Jonathan Wroble | 6 February 2013
Now two decades into a career launched by a song about numbing his soul, Mark “E” Everett continues his post as the grief counselor of indie pop. Not many can claim a past as troubled as his—both parents dead and a schizophrenic sister lost to suicide, a relative killed on September 11th—yet still he’s smiling, prolific as ever, and making curious noise in genres like alt-rock and twee where so many artists have sustained themselves being dramatic, sad, and angry for little reason. Everett’s knack for bright melodies, dark themes, and disarming wit, all central to his tenth record Wonderful, Glorious, makes for pop music with a pulse as well as a purpose, come as it does from the last living descendent of a family streaked by genius (E’s father was a quantum physicist) and cursed by insanity. With this record, Eels rediscovers the winning and welcome delicacy to his formula: not so much a suggestion of fragility, more a sense that one accidental move could diffuse an earthshattering bomb from somewhere deep within.
Wonderful, Glorious is the best Eels album since Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (2005), thanks in large part to it being less mired in the forced themes, brisk pacing, and gimmickry of his 2009-2010 trilogy (Hombre Lobo through Tomorrow Morning). As he told The Guardian, this is the first time he recorded without a plan or a concept, and it shows: back in the mix are found sounds, grade school poetry, and fluctuations between introspective pocket ballads and fuzzy assault rock. Call it ambition born of coming from nothing—it’s the improvised ingredient behind E’s most fascinating past work, from the jazzy scatting of “Susan’s House” to the incredible vulnerability of a song like “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor.” Wonderful, Glorious isn’t cute or distant, the adjectives that embody Eels at his worst, but neither is it unfocused.
“Bombs Away” is a frisky start, with kitchen sink percussion, a spaghetti western guitar line, and electronic scratching like a mouse skittering around the switchboard. The bass line has shades of bossa nova to it, as does the spare baritone sax oddly honking along. It’s no weirder than “Peach Blossom,” however, a Beck-like junkyard anthem that sounds heavier and more primal than anything here, so of course it’s written about flowers. “Open the windows and smell the peach blossoms / The tiger lily, the marigold,” sings E with all the gruff and menace of Tom Waits—an easy but endearing paradox, fitting of an singer whose gravelly voice has often contrasted his boyish intentions. The mismatch trick is repeated on “You’re My Friend,” an awkward ditty that rhymes “handed you too much” with “come through in the clutch,” and features a clavinet-heavy backing track that slinks like plastic G-funk.
To an extent, this album is too predictable. Songs often rely on the hallmarks of E’s songwriting: minor-key verses that swell into major-key choruses, climactic string-backed sections with enough cinematic swirl to turn mundane living into quiet triumph. But give the guy credit—manic swings are all he’s ever known, and the unthinkable tragedy he’s endured must make getting by seem glorious. And besides, it never comes off as manipulative; the “The Turnaround” is a slow and vindictive stunner, the line “I’m not knocked out but I’m on the ropes” from tidy travel tune “On the Ropes” may be the truest lyric of his life, and the ELO expanse of the title track, among others, makes it hard not to think fondly of this effort.
What Wonderful, Glorious may ultimately represent is the first album of the “old dog” phase in Everett’s career, a period of giving up new tricks and modern flourishes to make good records in the model of his great ones. It’s something of an indelible image, E bumbling around without the encumbrance of sketching a novel opus, content to make music when the weather is right. He turns 50 this year, and perhaps the highest praise for this record is cognizant of that fact: it doesn’t gamble on a young sound or untested arrangements, but rather celebrates in a familiar style the mercurial peace of E’s life, that of a man who takes comfort in being his age over the panic of feeling half dead.