It’s now almost 30 years since Mark Oliver Everett, known universally by the abbreviation E, founded LA-based indie rock stalwarts Eels. Throughout the intervening three decades, the band’s established combination of quirky melodies, scuzzy guitars and starkly personal lyrics has remained enduringly popular, although 1996’s Beautiful Freak, featuring hit singles Novocaine For The Soul and Susan’s House, remains their commercial high point.
New release Extreme Witchcraft – Eels’ 14th studio album – sees E reflecting on the uncertainty of entering into a new phase of life following his second divorce (chronicled in his last record, 2020’s Earth to Dora). It’s also a lockdown album of sorts, both in terms of the introspective themes, and the fact it was recorded remotely in collaboration with PJ Harvey producer John Parish, based in Bristol, with E often responding to the Englishman’s emails by recording his parts in the dead of Californian night to avoid waking his young son.
The earlier tracks on Extreme Witchcraft are firmly positioned at the more raucous, grungy end of Eels’ range – the choppy riffs and propulsive drums of Amateur Hour, A Good Night On Earth and Steam Train are direct, energetic but rather tuneless and shouty. Things get a little gentler in the second half – So What It Isn’t is a classic example of the quiet then loud vibe that’s always served Eels well, and Learning While I Lose is a delightfully bittersweet slice of irresistible jangle pop. But we’re back to where we started with the snarling, brusque final track I Know You’re Right, in which E, seemingly resigned to not arguing any more, addresses his former partner with the devastatingly straightforward closing words “I know you’re right/I’m a goddamn fool.”
Lyrically, there’s the usual sprinkling of E gems on Extreme Witchcraft. Song titles like Better Living Through Desperation and the aforementioned Learning While I Lose signal a spirit of savouring silver linings in adversity, a prevailing mood perhaps best captured on the jauntily defiant Strawberries and Popcorn, with the now home alone songwriter musing “I don’t miss getting bossed around/ Now it’s like you’re always outta town/ I can lay down my muddy shoes/ On the dining room floor, if that’s what I choose.”
As a study of a man starting to slowly regain his feet after a major relationship break-up during a pandemic, Extreme Witchcraft has plenty to say. As a collection of Eels songs though, it unfortunately falls some way short of the band’s best work.