Mark Oliver Everett is, without doubt, the most consistently bipolar songwriter of our times. Shuttling between the rhapsodies of Daisies of the Galaxy and the chill misery of Electro Shock Blues, the scuzzy rage of Souljacker and the dejected tones of End Times, it’s hard enough on the emotions of the person listening, let alone the poor man living through all this shit.
And you really do get the sense that he is living through it all. Even if the sheer abundance of his heartbroken misery isn’t 100% based on personal experience, the visceral clarity of so many of the songs recorded under the banner of the Eels make it clear that Mr E feels it all too keenly – even the stuff he’s making up.
Following the apocalypse of 2010’s End Times, this is a resurrection album. There’s plenty of destruction still in the mix, but it’s tempered with a little hope, some steely determination, and a genuine attempt at rejecting victimhood. About time too – when you’re in your mid-40s and you’ve reached the height of your considerable beard-growing powers, you’d like to think the angst would begin to recede.
‘Peach Blossom’, the first single off this record, has rightly been getting a lot of airplay in recent weeks. Its dark, scuzzy baseline and tinkling keyboard melody are pleasantly reminiscent of similarly pop-friendly album figurehead ‘Beautiful Freak’, which catapulted the Eels into the mainstream (and this reviewer’s more than willing teenaged ears) in 1996. Even within the terrarium of this particular album world, though, there’s plenty to undercut the flower-sniffing sentiment of a fellow with nothing to fear.
Picking up where End Times left off, a bomb is dropped on the sin of apathy – no helpless victims live here except procrastination – whilst emotional fluctuations are par for the course. The shouty, billy-goat-gruff approach to vocals is used with more frequency than on previous recordings, portraying a hardness and stoicism which strives to overwhelm the struggling, routinely heartbroken figure who sings the songs.
There’re plenty of claims at a new-found resilience throughout Wonderful, Glorious. In its very first line, E tells us he’s ‘had enough of being complacent: I’ve had enough of being a mouse”. The determination of ‘Bombs Away’ is immediately followed by ‘Kinda Fuzzy’, a meditation on how very difficult it can be to get out of bed some days, fuzzy-headed and lacking the resolve which is so much easier to feel at dusk than at dawn. A few songs later, ‘On the Ropes’ even manages to couch success in terms of successfully avoided failure: “I’ve got enough fight left inside this tired heart, to win this one and walk out on my feet, no defeat”.
Mr E still sounds at his best with his soul and sinew bared; vulnerability is where his songwriting feels fully at home, not in the rage and grit of ‘The Turnaround’, or the implied filth of ‘Open My Present’. It’s on balladic no-love songs ‘True Original’ and ‘I’m Building a Shrine’ that he sounds most at home, allowing a messy vulnerability to shine through the assertions of self-worth and determination with which he seems to be trying to convince himself as much as us.
Occasionally, arrangements seem overabundant and messy, most notably on ‘You’re My Friend’, which seems to come with all the bells and whistles of the universe included for free. Wonderful, Glorious ends, as its title (if not its content) would suggest, on an unambiguous high, enraptured by the potential for joy and ready to make all the right choices, this time:
“My love is beautiful and it’s here for the taking. It’s gold and pure, and utterly earth-shaking. My love has brought me here to show you it’s true: a wretch like me, can make it through”.
It’s hard to imagine a long stream of thoroughly merry Eels albums following this one, but we’ll withhold our naysaying on this particular occasion. This isn’t the Eels’ best work, most likely because nothing too bad, or too good, as befallen Mr E. in the past year or two, but that’s not to say he won’t tear you a new alphabet if you try to derail his happiness train.