This time, the whole world is living the new Eels album. Generally, dispatches from LA’s most careworn alt-pop outfit have acted as windows on the turbulent, nose to the romantic grindstone life of Mark ‘E’ Everett – 2020’s ‘Earth To Dora’ traced the parabolic rise and fall of a relationship in full, shortly after Everett’s second divorce. ‘Extreme Witchcraft’, however, is set in the uncertain hinterland following a major life upheaval, finding E a little lost and unsure of himself. A track like ‘Learning While I Lose’ might be the most personal of outpourings, but lines like “Yesterday’s another day/I wish it’d gone another way/Now today I’m trying to see just what’s ahead for me” could be printed on a magnet and stuck to the fridge of 2022.
It certainly doesn’t sound like an album recorded remotely in collaboration with PJ Harvey foil John Parish, with E adding his parts at 4am while trying not to wake his son. The first half of the record throws back somewhat to the pair’s last collab on 2001’s abrasive ‘Souljacker’ – fuzzed up retro garage rock dominates the opening run of ‘Amateur Hour’ and ‘Good Night On Earth’. ‘Nuggets’ is speckled with psychedelia and trademark E self-deprecation, and hosts an extremely belated kiss-off to Colin Firth for delivering the line “I can’t stand Eels” in Love, Actually.
A tone of post-traumatic optimism is struck: ‘Strawberries And Popcorn’ lauds the benefits of being a post-divorce slob: eating junk dinners in your pants with “nobody here to pester me”. Another relatable image, in this brave new world of working from home.
However, like its centrepiece ‘Stumbling Bee’ – a piece of cranky, throwaway jazz pop about feeling aimless – the record loses direction as it ventures away from its invigorating garage rock and Motown opening. ‘Grandfather Clock Strikes Twelve’ mashes hip-hop, classic funk, vocoder backing vocals and a frank depiction of steamy parent sex (“Lock the door, we’re on the floor, the starving will be fed”) into something resembling a divorcee Prince, but the funk and jazz touches of ‘So Anyway’ and ‘I Know You’re Right’ slow the record to a dispiriting crawl.
More uplifting is the handclap country folk ditty ‘Learning While I Lose’, and the uncharacteristically confident bar rocker ‘The Magic’. “Try me,” E spiels, sidling seductively up to a stranger. Spoiler: she doesn’t. Meanwhile, schizophrenic incel anthem ‘What It Isn’t’ flicks from serene Beach Boys twinkling to furious brass punk as E finally cracks in the face of another goddamn rejection.
It’s the most adventurous moment on a record of fluctuating magic. Rather than a fresh blast of wizardry, ‘Extreme Witchcraft’ is more of a feet-finder for our times.
Release date: January 28
Release label: PIAS/E Works Records