3.5 out of 5 stars
The tenth Eels record finds its bearded troubadour scowling, “I’ve had enough of being complacent,” and, “Don’t mess with me, I’m up for the fight.” Why shouldn’t he sound defiant? Eels share a tiny mantel with Nineties rock bands that debuted on post-grunge MTV that are still remotely relevant today. (That space might only be shared with Ben Folds—and Weezer if you’re feeling charitable.) Nevermind that E, whose real name is Mark Oliver Everett, has already said that the defiant streak on Wonderful, Glorious stems from how he, for the first time ever, approached the recording without a real plan beforehand: It apparently made him feel like he needed to fight against an unfamiliar corner that he’d painted himself into. But no. Eels are late-90s refugees who fought to remain relevant by evolving from quirky pop oddities like Beautiful Freak to the surprisingly funky blues found scattered throughout their records since 2001’s Souljacker. They ditch most of the quirks for grimy blues on Wonderful, Glorious, making it one of their best albums in years.
This is music that’s meant to be turned up loud, preferably in a tightly-packed bayou roadhouse where everybody’s sweating in a 112-degree night. It launches straight into a fuzzy guitar riff and taunting bass line on “Bombs Away” that should be heard with a crowd—one that’s willing to twist their bodies to a groove being laid down by a man who has far more soul than most bearded, middle-aged white guys are allotted. It leads into the hazy voodoo of “Kinda Fuzzy,” quickly confirming that this isn’t the fluffy pop-side of E that ends up on Shrek soundtracks. It’s the darker, defiant side that shakes the dust out of the rafters, like the grinding bass of the first single “Peach Blossom,” where E craggily intones, “Open the window and smell the peach blossoms, the tiger lilies, the marigolds.” On early albums like Daisies of the Galaxy, that lyric could only sound twee and cloying. But here, E demands it like he has a knife to your throat, creating a wonderful paradox.
The record’s dark bent likely won’t net the Eels many new fans. And it’s far from perfect: A couple tracks are too plodding to sustain the roadhouse vibe; and a few of the country-tinged songs in the band’s recent trilogy of records nearly recalled the heartbreak of Townes Van Zandt, though nothing here approaches that enthralling vulnerability. But longtime fans of the band’s bluesy moods should be happy. It’s generally as fun as the album title suggests. And inspirations from all parts of E’s career can be found, like on “New Alphabet,” where a one-bar bridge of plucked strings fills the gap between unconventional pop and bluesy rage. Or on “I Am Building A Shrine,” where child-like organ notes mix in with distorted grooves. E might have said that he didn’t know what he was doing before he made this record, but going into it with an open mind likely made him rock’s most relevant late-90s refugee.