Eels is hard to define. From the riveting melancholiness of “It’s a Mother****er”, the soulfulness of “A Swallow in the Sun,” to the carefree spontaneity of “I Like Birds,” this band’s music cannot be boiled down to one or two words. Even in a single album there are multiple motifs, emotions and storylines, and Eels’ new album “Extreme Witchcraft” is no exception. As Eels’ frontman Mark Everett, also known as “E,” puts it, “Sometimes it's simple and pretty, other times it's loud and grating. It's been a lot of things over the years, and we still don't have an easy answer for this one.”
E’s musical sensitivity is in part a product of his pain-stained family history. His father Hugh Everett III, the first person to propose the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, passed away at the relatively young age of fifty-one. Only nineteen at the time, E was the first person to find his father dead. From 1996 to 1998, he consecutively lost his sister and his mother, leaving him with no immediate kin. Both his older sister Liz, whom Mark Everett respected and looked up to, and his mother were plagued by mental illness. Liz became addicted to drugs in the final years of her life before she committed suicide. His mother died of lung cancer. One of his earlier albums, “Electro-Shock Blues,” is an exploration of the grief that marked this period of his life. Through artistic sublimation, as Freudians might say, he was able to see a silver lining even in this series of traumatic events, turning his experience into creative fuel for his music.
With an acute sensitivity and incredible creative talents, Everett led his band Eels through roughly thirty years of a prolific career. As previously mentioned, the band’s music covers a wide range of themes. But whatever their songs are focused on, in whichever form of rendering, there is always an existential note in their music. Take these three songs from their album “The Cautionary Tale of Mark Oliver Everett” for example: “Where I’m At,” “Where I’m From” and “Where I’m Going.” What a clever nod to the three fundamental questions of Idealism. Whether it’s feeling of sadness, glee, calmness, self-deprecation, deprecating the world or loving the world, the lyrics and tunes make the pieces consistently immersive. When listening to Eels’ “Daisies of the Galaxy”, one minute you can be spiraling downward, wallowing in a soothing bittersweetness, and the next minute you can be hopping down the street with the cheery tunes of another song. Yet when you take a closer look at the seemingly upbeat “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” or “Flyswatter,” you come to the realization that the message of the lyric is anything but innocuous optimism. In a way Eels’ albums show no matter how deeply we might experience certain emotions and state of mind, they are all transient. Sometimes positivity can be wrapped inside of negativity, and vice versa.
Eels carried on with this emotional complexity in their latest work. Produced in collaboration with John Parish, who worked together with Eels on “Souljacker” twenty years ago, “Extreme Witchcraft” is an album that is heavily inspired by the E’s personal experiences, as well as global events in the past two years. The name “Extreme Witchcraft” came from Beyoncé’s former drummer’s allegation, where she accused Beyoncé of “extreme witchcraft”. This album is definitely a more grating piece by Eels, with less easily-memorable tunes, but more salient drum and guitar tempos, which makes sense considering this statement by E: “I really want to do some rocking after two years cooped up”.
E is aware that an album’s name directs listeners’ interpretation of the albums’ overarching theme. By naming this one “Extreme Witchcraft”, he invites listeners to find the magic of these twelve songs. For me, I see a sense of magic in the way the songs in this album serve as a confrontational antidote to miseries in life. “Steam Engine,” a song that reminds me of old, classic rock pieces in the 1980s, is about approaching mortality, the now fifty-eight-year old songwriter acknowledging his days are numbered and that he may be running out of steam. In “Strawberries & Popcorn,” E tucks an inevitable feeling of loss and haze, induced by a new independence after a relationship, into the sweet tunes and playful first few passages of lyrics.
Enter songs in “Extreme Witchcraft” that speak more to the pandemic and other common experiences. In an interview with SPIN, E shared his realization while making “Good Night On Earth”: “You know, the world is shit. But I’m having a pretty nice time right now — it’s a nice evening, so let’s appreciate the good stuff.” The song can really be viewed in at least two different ways—dark humor pointing toward adults who are naive enough to bring their child into this disaster-ridden world, or appreciating one good, peaceful night at home amidst all the other havoc. “Stumbling Bee” is a tribute to Los Angeles bees that fly in November, each looking like “a broken drunk staggering for a place to lie down” It is also a metaphor for those who feel misplaced and batting the upward stream.
This metaphor leads us into “Better Living Through Desperation,” Eels’ answer for the philosophical question “If you could only choose one, would you rather live in agony or in void?” Purely in regards to the message of the song, my favorite in the entire album is “What It Isn’t.” The angst that came through in this piece, especially at the outburst near 1:00, resonated with my personal distaste for the phrase “It is what it is”. This song sets an encouraging example that idealistic indignation does not have to die out when you get older.
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Katherine Zhong is a Trinity junior and local arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.