Eels have always been a special band to me. Along with Johnny Cash'sAmerican IV, The Clash's London Calling and a lot of Bruce Springsteen CDs they're one of the bands that connect me to my dad. I could be getting my facts wrong with this, but I'm fairly sure 2003's Shootenanny could be the only CD he ever bought me, before he died of a heart attack.
So that's not exactly the happiest of openings to an article, but Eels aren't the happiest of bands. In fact, they're probably one of the most miserable and I consider myself an expert in the field of miserable music. It's a very different depression to the lustful, murderous passion behind Nick Cave's best work or Morrisey's ironic, constructed misery guts persona. It's a deep, personal dissatisfaction with the world, with the singer's role in life, and with himself.
Eels, or the man behind them Mark Oliver Everett (or E as he's more commonly known) hasn't had the happiest of lives. The album Electro Shock Blues deals with his sister's suicide as well as his mothers diagnosis with cancer. His song-writing is blunt, honest and heartfelt. Listening to an Eels album in one go can often lead to serious bouts of self pity.
The first song anyone loves by the Eels is nearly always 'Mr E's Beautiful Blues', it's a genius pop song that was too happy and ended up being hidden away as a bonus track on Electro Shock Blues, or 'My Beloved Monster' from the first Shrek film. The stories behind these songs can be found in E's excellent autobiography 'Things the Grandchildren Should Know'. Without wanting to spoil the read, E was deeply uncomfortable with the success of Beautiful Blues, especially having a to film a music video for it to tie in with a teen comedy (Road Trip). He describes his favourite part of filming as when he got to 'pretend' to beat up one of the actors.
Genre wise Eels change with almost every album; Daisies Of The Galaxy is an experimental power pop master class, Shootenanny takes a slightly country/blues approach and Hombre Lobo skips between understated introspection and balls out rock guitar riffs. What always remains the same however, is the song writing, a few chords, a simple melody and bleak outlook on life.
In 2005, I saw Eels live for the first time, and my 15 year old mind wasn't ready for Eels with Strings. I wanted a full band set, with the more upbeat songs from Shootenanny and of course 'Mr E's Beautiful Blues'. What I got was an obscure Russian children's film as a support act, a man who'd brought his estranged 10 year old daughter to her first concert sat next to me and a downbeat set of string arranged ballads where the most rock 'n' roll the set got was when the string quartet put their violins down and picked up maracas. I was disappointed, but I should have probably read what the tour was called before buying tickets. Later in the year, they toured with 'No Strings Attached' but the moment had passed. Now I'm slightly older, I think I'd probably appreciate that gig a lot more.
I did get to see Eels play their 'full band' set, at Latitude 2011. They were easily one of the best bands of the weekend, pulling no punches and transforming timid ukulele classics such as 'I Like Birds' into screaming, fast paced three chord freak outs. Still no Beautiful Blues though. E is as awkward as it comes, he'll never surrender to becoming defined by just one song, despite how hard everyone wants him to.
A new album arrives in February, the first since 2010's Tomorrow Morning. the last of a trilogy of albums released in quick succession. The three year break may have been worth it. E has lost the hobo beard he was rocking circa 2009-2011, the album is entitled Wonderful, Glorious, which is unusually hopeful and, of the tracks that have already been released, 'Peach Blossom' has an insanely catchy drum beat and killer guitar riff which breaks into weird tape loops and experimentation. It sounds like a much happier E, who's finally writing pop songs that aren't underlined with razor sharp misery. Another new song, 'New Alphabet' opens with the line “You know what, I'm in a good mood today. I'm so happy its not yesterday.” Eels have evolved, this is a new sound, a new happy territory, and I am excited for the album's release on the 5th of February.