When a band is first starting out, there can often be a lot of pressure surrounding the notoriously ‘difficult second album’. And the fact they’ve already poured a lifetime’s worth (up to that point) of heartbreak, adversity and triumph into the first album – leaving nothing interesting to write about for the follow-up. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending how you look at it), Mark Everett – better known simply as E, the man behind Eels – continued to be struck by one personal catastrophe after another as his music career took off. Firstly, losing his alcoholic father, an under-appreciated physicist during his lifetime but now recognised as a genius for his many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics; tragically losing his older sister to suicide, and then his mother to cancer some years later.
The emotional fallout of these events, along with others from his unusual formative years – all beautifully and unsparingly documented in his biography, ‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’ – found an outlet in E’s song-writing, shaping his unique musical voice. At times desperately melancholy, but always finding room for optimism and inner strength despite the bleakness of events around him. It was this world weary yet indefatigable outlook, plus a constant willingness to experiment musically, that long ago drew me into Mr E’s beautiful and strange musical world. The first few Eels albums will always be among the most cherished in my collection and were never too far from my discman during my own formative years.
In the two decades since then, E’s kept up a remarkably prolific output, releasing an album of new material every couple of years. As with many of the favourite artists from my youth, I fell out of the habit of keeping up with each new release, having got the feeling his music had lost some of the eccentricities that once made it so special. And while Extreme Witchcraft is by no means as emotionally raw, or as quirkily lo-fi as those early seminal albums, it still bears E’s unique fingerprints, and shows his knack for finding a hooky pop song in the most unlikely of places is still undiminished.
Extreme Witchcraft sees E partnering once again with John Parish, with whom he recorded 2001’s Souljacker (an album that met with lukewarm critical reception but of which I’ve always been fond). Parish is maybe best known for his long-running musical partnership with PJ Harvey, as well as more recently, lending his production skills to Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg. Many of the tracks here came about as the result of a transatlantic collaboration, with the Bristol-based Parish sending E recordings of extended jams, which he would then refine into bitesize songs in a two-way editing process taking place across a 9-hour time difference.
Parish’s production gives the whole record a cosy, grainy warmth – like the welcome crackling of a fire and the smell of tobacco as you enter a basement bar. Around half the tracks are harder-edged rockers, soaked in the same gritty distortion that characterised much of Souljacker, while the other half are more tender-hearted ballads. Raising a young son – and having done so through a global pandemic – has maybe had the effect of smoothing some of the edges of E’s more bitter tendencies. For example, the title of ‘Strawberries and Popcorn’ is inspired by an unusual meal fashioned out of leftovers after a day of parenting left E too tired to prepare himself a dinner.
Two straight-up guitar driven bangers, ‘Amateur Hour’ followed by ‘Goodnight on Earth’, open the album and set the vibe for much of what follows. In that they’re instantly catchy and liable to get your foot-tapping and head bobbing, if not particularly adventurous. E has critics in his sights though, as ‘Goodnight on Earth’ contains a sideways reference to a Colin Firth line from Love, Actually – “I can’t stand eels” – from a scene where he finds himself flailing around in a muddy lake. (And which E seems to be on a one-man quest to turn into a meme).
But it’s the album’s middle portion where most of the gems are to be found. ‘Steam Engine’ is a pitch-perfect tribute to old fashioned rockabilly-style rock’n’roll, with an irresistibly groovy beat and guitar riff that clangs like a train bell. E’s longstanding penchant for a hip-hop beat comes to the fore on ‘Grandfather Clock Strikes Twelve’, accompanied by a twitchy funk bassline and vocoder effect. ‘The Magic’ is another big-riffed stomper that leans into 70s glam rock, complete with ‘hands in the air’ drum-claps, adorned by the occasional flute trill and the ripple of bar chimes.
Extreme Witchcraft packs a lot into its 38-minute duration; all of the 12 tracks here stand on their own two feet, doing their thing and doing it swiftly before it’s onto the next, so at no point does one feel drawn to the skip button. E’s song-writing prowess is undeniable; his characteristic turn-of-phrase and the ease at which he turns out catchy ditty one after the other gives you the feeling he could do this in his sleep. And to hear him reunited with John Parish is a joy, giving Extreme Witchcraft a focus that was lacking from his last two outings. I just can’t help wishing he’d try something a little more adventurous. But maybe next time, for that notoriously difficult 15th album.