The ‘Wonderful, Glorious’ Journey of E and Eels

Last year, E of the Eels went into a studio with a full band that he had assembled for his previous tour. Together they produced Wonderful, Glorious, a record funky and indefinite. The opening track, “Bombs Away,” avoids explosiveness entirely; it prefers a framework of winding smoke. The song moves about a creeping groove while a thousand details wheel around it—sparking decorations, spiky ambushes of guitar. It feels more like the product of a band, distinct from previous Eels records where E surrounded himself with a wheeling constellation of studio musicians. Wonderful, Glorious is less assembled from discrete parts, more grown into itself—when listening to the record, there’s the feeling of people who know how to play with each other, a variously-brained body ambling through a space. The final product is properly exploratory.

“We were just experimenting and seeing what happens,” E said in a phone interview I conducted with him in January. This was a new approach for him—E’s songwriting almost neatly divides into two categories: traditional, pretty songcraft and fevered grooves. Wonderful, Glorious is a total dive into the latter mood—nearly everything in some way cooks. But there’s the occasional reflective moment, as in “True Original,” a small, frail melody that circles sweetly. “Sometimes you’re in a more traditional mood and other times you’re in a mood to just fuck things up and see what happens,” E said. “I’ve certainly been fucking things up since the beginning of my career. It’s whatever mood you’re in and also what kind of story you’re trying to tell and what would suit that.”

A few stories are nonlinear in the telling. “Peach Blossom” pivots about meanly even as it is literally a song about opening a window and smelling the flowers outside. “The Turnaround” blooms slowly and gorgeously, yet it does so in an ominous coloring, like a poisonous flower. “I guess when that song starts out you’re not expecting a happy ending,” E says. “And you don’t get a happy ending, but you do get the possibility of a happy ending happening after the song is over.” At the end of the song E repeats, as if a mantra, the lyric “Six bucks in my pocket / and the shoes on my feet / The first step is out the door / and onto the street.” The relative optimism of this line is matched inversely by the heaving atmosphere of his band—musically “The Turnaround” is a four-minute crescendo, and the final electric buzz of it is so dramatic it’s as if dark clouds develop and storm over every E’s word.

Not everything on the record is quite as compelling. Songs like “Accident Prone” and “On the Ropes” are a pile of lazily related chords. E’s voice, always a wiry bark, is here even more reduced. It migrates in pain. But the flaws of Wonderful, Glorious are less grating, less disruptive because of the album’s optimistic, accepting tone. “New Alphabet” starts immediately after “The Turnaround” and it almost seems the second part of the story, a person finding stability by retranslating their world. “‘New Alphabet’ could almost be thought of as what happens to the guy in ‘The Turnaround’ next,” E says. “Then he gets his shit together to the point where he’s really getting his shit together and realizes, ‘Okay, I got to take this further, and if I want to change anything in my world all I can do is change myself. I can’t change anyone around me. So how can I change myself to make situations in my life work better?’” This relatively spirited attitude is a progression from 2010’s similarly glowing Tomorrow Morning in that it seems less sarcastic, less designed as a deliberate contrast to the relentlessly bleak End Times. It’s also a massive development from the dude who recorded 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues, an album-length meditation on the deaths of his immediate family, or even 2005’s Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, a double album where the songs were so sad and troubled that they blended into a grim, unvarying pile. The therapeutic aspects of “New Alphabet,” the flowers in “Peach Blossom” suggest he’s not as focused on the frozen, joyless incidents of his past, that he’s newly concentrated on these moment-to-moment productions of grace.

This is underlined by the “in the moment” feel of the record, the presence of a real, working, fluid band and E’s new, more improvisational approach to songwriting. “Almost always when I make an album, I do go into it with this concept in mind about what I want the whole album to be about and what I want it to sound like musically in some way,” he said. “The difference in this new album is it’s the first time I think I didn’t have that in mind. I had no plans at all, and that was the plan—to have no plan. And it was a good lesson for me to see that you could do that and come out with something cohesive that did end up having a theme to it. It worked out very organically in the studio as we were doing it. None of it was arranged.” I suggested that the final theme was possibly a person—and a band—exploring. “I wasn’t aware of what some of the lyrics meant at the time that I was writing it,” he said. “But it is a person exploring, who is a little scared about the idea that he didn’t have a plan and didn’t know where he was going.”

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