Whether you enjoy Extreme Witchcraft, the new album from longtime rockers Eels, will likely depend on your preferred version of Eels figurehead Mark Oliver “E” Everett: the somber balladeer? The sardonic pop genius? The blues-rock enthusiast? If it’s the last of those, you’re in luck—this album is E shaking off the dust with some swampy distortion, albeit to mixed results.
When Everett’s songs are most effective, they’re fueled by tension between beauty and frustration, or beauty and sadness—think Daisies Of The Galaxy’s gorgeous “It’s A Motherfucker,” or the sad-sounding serenity of Souljacker’s “Fresh Feeling.” That tension reached its zenith in the rock-bottom despair and glimpses of hope on Electro-Shock Blues, Everett’s masterpiece. Some of that moving contrast surfaces on Extreme Witchcraft, such as “What It Isn’t,” which shifts from the gentle resignation of E singing “It is what it is” to an explosion of sound as he yells, “Make it what it isn’t! Shut up!” Overall, however, there isn’t much tension, beautiful or otherwise.
Little surprises (like Everett’s “Shut up!”) have always been part of Eels’ appeal, and similar touches, such as a Disney-spell flourish on the otherwise flat mid-tempo rocker “The Magic,” or the Prince-like guitar licks (a phrase few probably expected in an Eels review) on “Grandfather Clock,” make this record snap to attention. Souljacker’s producer, John Parish, is back in the fold for Extreme Witchcraft, and that likely accounts for those surprising moments. In promotional materials for this album, Everett calls Parish a “mad scientist” and says, “If you make music with John Parish, you get stuff no one else does.”
But Souljacker had a mad scientist-level of intricacy; the songs on Extreme Witchcraft that don’t work simply blend into the background. The plodding “Stumbling Bee” and “Strawberries And Popcorn,” for example, are more vibes than cohesive songs, and the handful of blues-rock workouts (“Better Living Through Desperation,” “Steam Engine”) similarly lack that precision.
Moments that do work—and there are a handful—combine Everett’s peerless gift for melody and pacing. Opener “Amateur Hour” has hooks and energy to spare, and the snappy, chiming “Learning While I Lose” wouldn’t sound out of place on the delicate Daisies Of The Galaxy. Though quiet and unassuming, it’s satisfyingly layered in a way that evokes Everett’s best, most complex work.
Ultimately, however, there isn’t much in the way of subtext here. That isn’t necessarily a problem—there isn’t any subtext in Eels’ joyously classic song “Saturday Morning,” either—but without many memorable melodies or hooks to hold on to in the foreground, Extreme Witchcraft largely goes by unnoticed.
It’s possible that we’ll look back at records like this—inconsistent, punchy, full of frustration and distortion pedals—as a product of the pandemic. Extreme Witchcraft certainly sounds like the product of someone—akin to nearly all of us—suffering from cabin fever. (Accordingly, the band’s upcoming shows are part of its “Lockdown Hurricane Tour.”) The catharsis of Mark Oliver Everett yelling “Make it what it isn’t!” in response to the miserable status quo of 2022 is something to savor. Maybe that’s the version of Everett that we need right now.