If you have an even passing familiarity with Eels, it is almost certainly through their 90’s spacey semi-hit “Novocaine for the Soul,” or just the all-encompassing bleakness of subsequent records like Electro-Shock Blues and Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Eels albums tend to be Heavy with a capital H, at least in subject matter and tone. One does not fire up the latest record from Mark Oliver Everett (formerly simply “E”) for whimsy and background driving music. Saying you listen to Eels is a specific statement about what you want and expect from your music.
Which is what makes Extreme Witchcraft, Everett’s latest record, such a vexing listen and assignment to review. The pieces are there – that gravelly voice carrying the weight of the world, or at least some recent tragedy, hasn’t lost a bit of its edge. But the song structure is pure local bar band at the neighbourhood watering hole. These are largely bouncing, singalong songs with minimal lyrical consequence. These are songs where the chorus has established itself in your head after the first pass. This is not weighty, important music. The question is, does that even matter?
“Amateur Hour” opens Extreme Witchcraft with a chunky, workmanlike guitar riff. Lyrically it doesn’t expand much beyond that utilitarian quality – “Sweet petite / Not near obsolete / You Couldn’t be better than that / Life can be dumb but I’m not gonna be your fool no more / Baby you’re an amateur / You gotta go pro someday,” Everett sings, sounding more like a honky tonk singer than a shoegazing poet. Subsequent tracks like opening single “Good Night on Earth” and “Strawberries and Popcorn,” don’t delve much deeper than the titles suggest. This is a loose, freewheeling Eels, and while there’s nothing wrong with changing and evolving, it’s not a terribly interesting record overall. And often when the second half slows down, such as on “So Anyway,” the track meanders, lacking any sort of real true north. It fits the overall vibe of an impromptu jam session, but adds little to the record overall.
It’s not all retread rock. Standout “Stumbling Bee” ups the ante both musically and lyrically; proving that less is truly sometimes more, the song doesn’t try to be anything more than a measured, impactful showcase for the message. Songs like that and closer “I Know You’re Right,” feel particularly powerful given their freewheeling, breezy nature. E has always been at his best when he feels like a natural poet, who doesn’t have to impress you with his wit through pain – it just comes naturally. The hook is there, even when it’s not announced as on the clunkier rockers.
The pandemic has affected every artist in different ways; for every Taylor Swift going full folk there’s an artist going from bedroom strumming to arena-ready rock. “I really want to do some rocking after two years being cooped up” Everett said in a recent Billboard interview. He’s certainly succeeded in subverting his fans’ expectations, which isn’t necessarily synonymous with doing something genuinely interesting. Besides being the first Eels record one could conceivably play at a backyard barbecue, Extreme Witchcraft is an ultimately forgettable entry.
Words by Ryan Self
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