Sunday, 10 February 2013

Eels - Wonderful, Glorious (Album Review 2013)

In 2005, Mark Everett (E) put his life story into song, once and for all, and created the masterpiece Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. We all knew this wasn't to be the end of the E saga. A trilogy of 'concept' albums has followed, all slightly different and themed (loss, desire and redemption), but all delivering more of the same - his trademark thoughts and dreams, tributes of the long departed, and hopes of the future. So what next in the troubled life of Mark Everett? Wonderful, Glorious has been pitched as a new direction - a more upbeat album, pop-tinged with garage blues and a more robust feel than the delicate arrangements of Tomorrow Morning and End Times.

Wonderful, Glorious feels like the direct successor to 2001's Souljacker. From the opener Bombs Away - possibly an ironic nod to the media's perception of the aforementioned prelude, E announces that he is back, in dark, menacing style - this is immediately self-referential, with harsh rasping distorted vocals set to a horror movie soundtrack. Over the five-minute running time, E goes from 'whispering fool' to howling maniac. Kinda Fuzzy is the hangover, a Beck-like exploration into an addled mind, gliding through different styles and textures. It is clear that Wonderful, Glorious is an album of contrasts as Accident Prone is a minimalist ballad and a sedate controlled tale of serendipity. The big drums and buzzing guitars of Peach Blossom bring us back - E reels off repetitive lyrics until the guitars take over in the second half for a cool arrangement.

The best of Wonderful, Glorious is the core of the album. On The Ropes is an obvious metaphor, beautifully woven into a heartfelt ballad. E is firmly at home playing the broken man, or the troubled soul planning and scheming but never fulfilling his desires. The Turnaround is the album highlight - the thoughts of a defeated yet hopeful drifter and another wonderful arrangement. 'I always bit the hand that beat me' is simple and effective. It builds to a rousing climax. Another high point is the cool, creepy, pop of New Alphabet, complete with distorted vocals and edgy guitars - a great example of Eels as a robust 'band'. Stick Together takes the same approach - the 50s guitars and cheesy lyrics showing a 'lighter side' to E: 'It's me and you, taking on all comers...watching them fall and nothing could be fun-er'.

Wonderful, Glorious builds to a good finish. True Original is a moving tribute and Open My Present is more of E in antagonistic mode. This could be an Eels Christmas record. You're My Friend is one of the only moments when it doesn't work - the weary vocal compliments the lumbering guitars and limp electronica, but this is immediately forgotten as I Am Building A Shrine is wonderful - the vocal production shows E's voice perfectly and it is an open, honest love song. The album closes with the title track which limps from a structureless first half of empty spaces and pseudo-funk guitars to a brilliant finale. E's last words are unexpected and poignant: 'My love is beautiful, it's here for the taking, it's strong and pure and utterly Earth-shaking... My love is only here to show you it's true, or it's like'll make it through'. The delivery is honest and irony free.

At times it feels like Wonderful, Glorious is turning back the clock, to replace the messy and incoherent Shootenanny! but it also feels very much in the present. E is still a prolific songwriter, even if his reference points seem limited and the subject matter veers into melancholy, frustration and contrast. He often sounds distance these days and upbeat moments are hard to engage (Peach Blossom's lyrics do not conjure a picture of a man enjoying the springtime but someone sitting in a dark room, thinking about how great it would be to go outside - but avoiding the disappointment when it doesn't meet his imagined expectations). Tragedy and loss has fuelled E's music for decades and looking back to the dark times is always going to happen. But now that his life story is written, these days he is not looking back too far...
-- CS

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