Early in “Wonderful, Glorious,” Eels’ 10th album, Mark Oliver Everett delivers a statement of intent. “I’m feeling kinda fuzzy / But the future looks bright / Don’t mess with me, I’m up for the fight,” he sings. Eels are, or at any rate used to be, the archetypal 90s indie band: lo-fi, idiosyncratic, and invariably ironic. Eels were representative of an era dominated by professional ironists like Pavement. Now, in their third decade, they find themselves in a musical universe in which earnestness, as practiced by Arcade Fire or Bon Iver, has replaced sardonicism as the currency of indie. As this album shows, Eels have changed with the scene, but with mixed results.
Everett, better known as E (or Mr. E), has always been Eels’ driving force, to the extent that the band is best understood as E and his rotating supporting cast. Musically, E used to specialize in deceptively bouncy pop songs with sunny melodies and sardonic lyrics, as displayed on 1996’s “Novocaine for the Soul” and 2005’s “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living).” On “Wonderful, Glorious,” however, this type of song is notably absent. Instead, the band alternates between tuneless but insistent three-cord hard rockers and mournful, dirge-like ballads. Eels’ music has never been more guitar-driven, and it has never been more repetitive. With the exception of the bridge on “Peach Blossom,” E’s piano—so crucial to earlier classics like “Beautiful Freak” and “It’s a Motherfucker”—makes few appearances. P-Boo, guitarist on Eels’ 2008-2009 concept album trilogy, returns here, and his riffs and solos tend to consist of a few furiously hammered notes that lack both variety and character.
Curiously, Eels’ evolution from lo-fi pop to dull hard rock is accompanied by the least depressive lyrics E has ever penned. On past albums, optimism was usually a cover for despair; when E sang, “Goddamn right it’s a beautiful day,” on 2000’s “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues,” the irony was palpable. Here, the lyrics are as earnest as anything Win Butler or even Chris Martin could pen. At times they can sound quite unrecognizable, as on “You’re My Friend.” “You’re my friend / You done a lot of things for me / And I won’t forget them / Do you know how much you mean to me,” E sings, with not a trace of irony or self-consciousness anywhere. It is jarring to witness a lyricist who was so once so mordantly inventive reduced to writing such pap. Even worse is how easily he resorts to cliché. From “It’s a tangled cobweb that I weave” on “Kinda Fuzzy” to “You always find a way to come through in the clutch” on “You’re My Friend,” this album is full of egregiously lazy imagery; all this from a singer/songwriter whose historic strength has been his lyrics.
One aspect of Eels’ evolution is unambiguously positive. In their late 90s and early 2000s heyday, E was at best an indifferent singer. As he has aged, however, his voice has deepened into a smoky half-growl—a sort of indie Rod Stewart—and he is a richer and more expressive vocalist for it. One of the album’s finest moments is “On the Ropes”—a laid-back, folksy reflection on E’s place in the world as he enters middle age. The track is evidence of what “Wonderful, Glorious” could have been: it combines Eels’ traditional strengths—a genuinely attractive melody, and elegant lyrics—with E’s newly optimistic spirit and improved vocals. “I’ve got enough left inside this tired heart / To win this world and walk on my feet,” he sings. For a brief moment it is impossible not to be moved by his spirit.
Yet while “On the Ropes” is something of an aberration, it is worth remembering that Eels have always been a singles band and that even their best albums, such as 2000’s “Daisies of the Galaxy,” had plenty of filler. “Wonderful, Glorious” has three tracks that, in different ways, live up to the band’s best work: “On the Ropes,” “Peach Blossom,” and the title track, all of which succeed because of their musical variety. P-Boo’s plodding guitar is accompanied by E’s piano on “Peach Blossom,” while the last 90 seconds of “Wonderful, Glorious” are the best thing on the album. The song, and thus the album, culminates in a majestic combination of strings and synths as E delivers his most forceful, assertive lyrics yet: “My love is beautiful, it’s here for the taking / It’s strong and pure and utterly earth-shaking.” The newfound hope and optimism in E’s lyrics requires a musical counterpoint with vivacity and variance to complement it. The song “Wonderful, Glorious” shows that E still has plenty to offer as singer, songwriter, and bandleader, even if the album as a whole is a poor reflection of his talents.