The denizens of Eels leader E's songs live insular lives of stifling sorrow. E, AKA Mark Oliver Everett, describes characters caught in soulless worlds, and writes sympathetic odes to their plight. E says that The Eels' latest offering, Souljacker, takes its title from a term given to a serial killer who claimed to not only kill victims but rob them of their souls.
Souljacker tackles many facets of tragedy school violence, failed relationships, prostitution and murder. Remarkably, despite its melancholy subject matter, it's not the feel-bad album of the year, thanks to E's sardonic humor and the record's stentorian production, which finds the Eels sounding more rock with frequent bombastic power chords on the title track and rollicking guitar riffs on others and less glum than in the past.
The Eels' gloomy career has produced few hits, but the group is well regarded among loyalists to the indie-rock scene, as well as indie and college radio stations. The single "Novocaine for the Soul," off of 1996's plaintive Beautiful Freak, was the closest thing to a hit E ever penned. Musically, E is an original, though he has the chutzpah of Tom Waits and a love of musical experimentation akin to David Byrne's. Guest John Parish (a longtime collaborator of PJ Harvey) imbues Souljacker with a manic quality. The soul-jacker theme runs throughout and holds the musically protean album together. Despite its mostly rocking tempo (there are a few ballads, including the florid "Fresh Feeling") the music doesn't mask the high levels of angst that find expression in Souljacker; rather, it amplifies the tension, often leaving the listener disquieted, like a voyeur observing unpleasantries.
In the first track, "Dog Faced Boy," for example, it's easy to empathize with the protagonist as E sings "Coming home from school today/ Crying all the way/ Ain't no way for a boy to be," following with the wry chorus ("Ma won't shave me/ Jesus can't save me/ Dog faced boy"). E's voice is a paradox of sorts, sometimes gruff yet also inviting, beckoning listeners into his characters' sordid worlds. You might react with slight, uncomfortable laughter, and that might be just what E wants. He draws his listeners into his songs, and once you're there, it's hard not to react.
"Woman Driving, Man Sleeping" is a simple song of failed dreams, and a failed romance. "Woman driving, man sleeping," E sings. "Wear the suitcase on the rack/ White lines shooting by/ On the pavement like the sky/ Looking straight ahead, into the black." And things feel increasingly hopeless as the song progresses: "There's no radio to play/ Sitting with the map/ Laying crumpled on her lap/ Looking for the toll money to pay."
The recurring theme of hopelessness surfaces again in "Jungle Telegraph," in which the protagonist grows up to become a teenage prostitute, commits murder and then flees to a tropical island to live as a hermit. The song features a discordant horn sample, overdubbed with a samba-esque rhythm section. "Jungle Telegraph" comes across as feral because of its story, as well as its sound a winning combination.
Part one of the guitar-driven title track focuses jarringly on school violence as E sings "Waiting for it to end," then screams "Oh yeah" in his best breathy impersonation of a rock star. In part two, an elegiac piano piece, E sounds musically resigned even as he declares: "Souljacker can't get my soul/ He can shoot me up full of bullet holes/ But the souljacker can't get my soul."
Souljacker may tell the stories of oddball, downbeat characters, but its themes are universal, the soul-jacking metaphor resonating with many real-life experiences. E's penchant for the eccentric does not marginalize his art. More than just a sick joke, Souljacker is a rocking, thought-provoking journey.