For a guy generally lauded as a pop alchemist, Eels leader Mark Oliver Everett (a.k.a. E) makes for a pretty unlikely pop hero. For one thing, behind his thick beard and impenetrable glasses, he looks like a pretty undesirable cross between James A. Garfield and Steve McQueen in An Enemy of the People (except when he dons a hood, suggesting a cross between the Unabomber and Hank Williams Jr.). Besides, Everett's songs aren't exactly hooky or loaded with melodic invention, and they lack great pop's ability to create involuntary giddiness.
Everett's genius is more elusive than that. Like Polly Jean Harvey -- whose sidekick John Parish plays a huge playing and production role on Souljacker -- he snares you with his command of the details, chiefly the rare ability to create soundscapes that are as vivid and emotional as the nightmarish tales he's singing about. You can hear it in the ugly/beautiful overdriven guitar riff that heralds the steamroller opener "Dog Faced Boy," perfectly matching its tortured recollections of schoolyard ridicule ("Ma won't shave me/Jesus can't save me/Dog faced boy"); or the runaway salsa horns on "That's Not Really Funny," which are the aural equivalent of a tormented cartoon character having his ears turn into bleating trumpets.
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Souljacker is about as bleak a song cycle as you're likely to hear this year, with its elaborate stories of incest ("Souljacker part 1"), childhood abandonment ("Bus Stop Boxer") and sexual degradation ("That's Not Really Funny"). But Everett's reliable knack for the unexpected phrase ("Mama had an epidural/Hoping I would be a girl"), and his tentative hints of life-affirming light at the end of a claustrophobic tunnel, make Souljacker -- and its primary architect -- strangely moving. It's like a Todd Solondz film set to music, with all the needles on red.