Given previous single titles such as Novocaine for the Soul, Cancer for the Cure and Souljacker part 1, it’s no surprise that Mark Everett, the force behind Eels, has a reputation as something of a miserablist. Few who’ve read his 2008 autobiography Things The Grandchildren Would Know would begrudge him this, documenting as it does his father’s sudden death at only 51 years old, his sister’s suicide and his mother’s death from cancer.
These tragedies have loomed large over much of Eels’ output, not least the astounding 1998 album Electro-Shock Blues which dealt almost entirely with death, loss and grieving. That album did, however, feature glimmers of Everett’s oft-neglected black humour and optimism, its final track P.S. You Rock My World being a comic (but profoundly moving) dedication to life. This side of Eels has developed enormously over the years and 2010’s Tomorrow Morning, the third and final album of a sometimes bleak trilogy, was a positively cheerful experience and easily the warmest album to yet bear the band’s name.
Given his personal history it’s gratifying to find Everett releasing his 10th album from a position akin to alternative-rock royalty, much-respected albeit without the commercial breakthrough which has sometimes seemed tantalisingly within his grasp. If Eels’ popularity has plateaued, in recent years their sound has also settled and their work tends to fall largely into one of two categories: scuzzy blues-influenced rock or intimate, touching alt-folk.
Wonderful, Glorious features both but it’s the former which dominates, harking back to previous albums like Shootenanny! and Hombre Lobo. What is perhaps unexpected is the continuation of Tomorrow Morning’s upbeat tone – anyone expecting the album title to be ironic is in for a big surprise. The song New Alphabet almost serves as a précis for the album, opening with Everett declaring “You know what? I’m in a good mood today” and endeavouring to “make a new alphabet” in the face of his “brutal” past. He sounds happy and at ease, long past the awkward angst of Eels’ earliest material. Indeed, the bittersweet blues of The Turnaround begins with adolescent self-pity (“Never trusted anyone, don’t see why I should now”) before, midway through, Everett determines to “get it together”. The song then builds to a stirring, hopeful finale – an accomplished move which highlights Everett’s experience and confidence.
The album is far from a one-man show, however, with a full band providing a backdrop markedly more dynamic and loose than in other recent Eels albums. The difference is immediately noticeable on the brilliant opening track Bombs Away, which boldly races along with a swaggering belligerence. The sweet love song (and promotional single) Peach Blossom is a perfect illustration of the busy yet engaging ambiance, its crunching guitars bouncing off pretty melodies, shuffling rhythms and Everett’s coolly spoken-word vocals. It’s a masterly exercise in making the bustling energy seem endearingly simple.
Of course, no Eels album would be complete without some more reflective moments, here best represented by the gorgeous True Original, a downbeat number which nonetheless proves to be a disarmingly affectionate ode to an unnamed woman who, we are told, Everett would take a bullet for. Furthermore, he sings, “if not being with me is what makes her happy, I’d take that bullet, too.” Like many of Eels’ best songs it is deeply humane and all-the-more affecting for that.
At 13 tracks long the album does feel too long and it could easily have lost a couple of lesser songs – Open My Present is a guitar riff too far while Stick Together, fun as it is, feels incredibly slight. Happily, the best is saved for last with the stirring gospel influences of the title track providing a deliriously euphoric ending. Everett sounds full-blooded and in love with life, the lyrics testifying both to an acceptance of his past and to wisdom borne from it. Whether he has been re-invigorated by love, his new band or just from old-fashioned growing up, Mark Everett and Eels re-define themselves here with exhilarating success, putting all associations with misery out of mind with a compelling finality.