Look no further than the album covers. The last two Eels discs showed happy children at play, drawn in the idealized style of an outdated nursery-school reader. The new album, Souljacker, is something else entirely: a grainy shot of a sinister, bearded man protectively clutching a dog. Almost like a security-cam shot from the evening news. The unhappy pup looks he's being stolen. Or maybe on his way to a ritual sacrifice. The change in mood is obvious. This won't be another friendly pop collection.
Upon closer examination, the Souljacker cover reveals a second surprise: The ominous figure is actually Eels leader Mark Everett himself. Better known as "E.," Everett is disguised with dark sunglasses, a hooded sweatshirt and bushy facial growth. Not a look which will grab many Tiger Beat readers, but he's sticking with it.
"I really got into the first song on the record, 'Dog-Faced Boy,'" he explains. "I wanted to sort of feel the character's pain, so I just stopped shaving for a year. And it is a different life. People react to you differently. You walk into a bank, and the security guard flicks off the safety on his gun. You go into a store, and kids all hide behind their mothers' legs. It's a lonelier life, but I kinda like it. I like having something to hide behind."
The album's sound is as unexpected as E.'s new image, and equally fuzzy. Piano, strings and samples mostly fade into the background, and bluesy distortion is the focus on rattling tracks like "Souljacker Part 1" and "Jungle Telegraph" It's a looser, more spontaneous record, with little of the ornate layering of 2000's Daisies of the Galaxy. Again, the band changes to suit E.'s vision -- new collaborators John Parish, Joe Gore (both known for guitar work with P.J. Harvey) and bassist Koool G Murder enter to tear up this new, rougher texture.
"This album does have a certain rock element that's more extreme than the others," E. says. "It started with 'Souljacker Part 1.' That was the first thing I did like that. It just came from me, Butch the drummer and Adam, who was the bass player at the time. We were rehearsing, and it's one of the few times where we jammed on something and it actually turned into a song. I started playing that guitar riff, and we did it. I don't know where it came from."
E.'s songs are typically provocative, switching between dark character portraits ("Bus Stop Boxer," "Woman Driving, Man Sleeping") and a few vulnerable confessions ("Fresh Feeling," "World of Shit"). Violence and emotional abuse flow through the lyrics, but a fragile sense of humanity always lurks at the core. It may be his least accessible album, but the writing is solid beneath the surface noise.
As Souljacker was completed a year ago (it was released last September, overseas), it's already old news to the prolific E. He's currently polishing off the next Eels disc, and claims to have several albums' worth of material stockpiled. He's also preparing for another tour, and will score and act in an upcoming film by director Wim Wenders (an enthusiastic Eels fan, who even shot the group's latest video). Meanwhile, since DreamWorks' impacted schedule can't keep up with E.'s productivity, he's again looking to console collectors through his own label, EWorks. A year ago, he issued the concert disc Oh What a Beautiful Morning, and further releases are in the planning stages. Yet for all his versatile projects, casual fans may only remember the Eels from their one fluke hit, 1996's "Novocaine for the Soul."
"I don't know if anyone even remembers that," E. says ruefully. "Somebody showed me a teen movie which came out in the last couple of years, and in it, there's this cute, brainy girl, and she and the guy she knows are the only people in her high school who are into the Eels. And I guess that's the best we can hope for. There's maybe two people in each school. We're the band that two people in your school like, which the rest of you haven't heard of."
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