Ever the shapeshifter, Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett (AKA “E”) has never been a normal artist, and as a result, Eels have always existed somewhere in the limbo between commercial radio and indie obscurity. Their songs often totter between melodic beauty and over-the-top quirkiness; the former can lead to Top 40 hits, the latter to one hit wonder status.
For many, the Eels probably do seem like a one hit wonder — “Novacaine for the Soul,” from their first album, Beautiful Freak, was that hit — but since then E and company have turned out three more excellent but mostly ignored albums, culminating in this year’s Souljacker.
This album, available since last year in Europe, is only now arriving in the U.S. — one more sign of the commercial ignorance of this fine band — but it proves to be well worth the long wait. For the first time, E’s once fragile songs are infused with genuine punk energy, resulting in a very different sound than Eels fans have come to expect. The opener, “Dog Faced Boy,” a fuzzy rocker with distorted electric guitars and a primitive beat, introduces the new Eels with a bang.
The heavier sound of Souljacker can possibly be credited to new collaborator John Parish, a guitarist and long-time producer famous for producing some of P.J. Harvey’s best work. In addition to producing most of this album, Parish co-wrote half of the music and joins E and drummer Butch on guitar for most of the tracks.
“Souljacker part 1” is most indicative of Eels’ new approach: a raucous guitar-driven song, it culminates in the growled chorus, “sisters, brothers, make better lovers/ family affair down under the covers.” The album closer “What is This Note?” is the biggest surprise, though, featuring sentimental love song lyrics screamed out at death metal speed over static-y guitars, with surf guitar parody breaks between the verses.
Of course, E hasn’t abandoned his past, and other songs are more indicative of the old Eels. “That’s Not Really Funny” mixes rumbling guitars with a sample of blaring horns for a fun, whimsical jam that recalls the quirky, Beck-inspired instrumentation of past songs like “Cancer for the Cure” or “Flyswatter.” “Woman Driving, Man Sleeping” is perhaps the best ballad E has ever written, featuring evocative lyrics about a nighttime drive over strummed acoustic guitar and a distant string section.
But by far the best song on the album is one that takes the Eels in a totally different direction altogether. “Jungle Telegraph” is all that is great about E’s music — rubbery guitars, skronky horns, and offbeat percussion make this the most unpredictable song here, with jazzy freak-outs leading into a genuinely funky, danceable verse.
For all these high points, though, there’s something ultimately unsatisfying about Souljacker. Like 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxy, this record is marred by inconsistency. Nothing here matches the sheer emotional fervor of the Eels masterpiece Electro-shock Blues, a depressing epic of an album that dealt with the deaths of E’s mother and sister — by cancer and suicide, respectively — and made for one of the most beautiful and harrowing listens of recent times.
With that emotional immediacy gone, Souljacker at times seems simply content to recycle old glories. On “Fresh Feeling,” E directly samples the string section from Daisies’ “Selective Memory” to create the most emptily radio-friendly Eels song yet, the lyrics strewn with sappy clich