When the Eels debuted in the mid-Nineties, being a tortured artist in the slippery world of alternative rock implied some level of ironic distance. God forbid that an alt-rocker directly admit to having feelings – at least not without a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Eels frontman E does his share of winking, but his real-life tragedies – within a two-year period, he lost his sister to suicide and his mother to cancer – have kept the singer and songwriter more honest than your average Nineties moper.
In 1998, E dealt head-on with his personal loss on the Eels’ stunning album, Electro-Shock Blues. On Souljacker, the band’s fourth release, he takes a hard-rocking, no-holds-barred look at the moral bankruptcy of society at large. From the blues-based grit and spit of the opening track to the messy distortion throughout, Souljacker launches an all-out attack on familiar Eels themes – insecurity, loneliness, despair – but this time from a more universal standpoint.
Over squalling guitars, fuzzy surf lines, loping break beats and lush strings, E spins tales of small-town misfits searching for meaning in a media-driven world. The hairy protagonist of “Dog Faced Boy” gets taunted at school and bitterly laments, “Ma won’t shave me/Jesus can’t save me.”
Behind a shuffling Bo Diddley beat in “Souljacker 1,” E examines the mind of a fed-up, Columbine-like high school student: “Johnny don’t like the teacher/Johnny don’t like the school/One day Johnny’s gonna do something/To show ’em he’s nobody’s fool – oh, yeah!” There are some spare, delicate moments – the lovely, string-drenched “Fresh Feeling,” the folky “Woman Driving, Man Sleeping” – but for the most part, the Eels have pulled out all the stops on Souljacker.