ALBUM REVIEW: Eels articulate comfortable middle ground on ‘Earth To Dora’

Eels, The Eels, Earth to Dora, Mark Oliver Everett

Mark Oliver Everett, the main man behind Eels, writes songs that feel elusive—yet are as plain as day. He writes them quickly and often, and has enjoyed repeated success. Under the Eels banner, Everett has scored seven U.S. charting albums and six top-40 singles in the U.K. His scruffy, honest lyrics arrive via his alcohol-soaked moan, and often weighty subject matter drives a variety of intensities. With their 13th album Earth To Dora, Eels reach a gentle songwriting stride.

Earth To Dora
PIAS Recordings, Oct. 30

Eels’ songs are direct and simple, but are nonetheless impactful. There’s no virtuosity, but the music’s honesty reveals the process of an honest man. For one thing, Everett sings of depression convincingly. On “OK,” he combines druggy lyrics with some Western drama in a backhanded affirmation of existence. “There were times I didn’t think that I’d see the sun rise/ And that was fine by me,” he crows, bending to perseverance. Hooks are present but understated as he delivers a half-spoken, broken verse. The song builds gradually, with trumpets carrying the final third of the song.

This ability to upgrade a simple confession to a state of elegance keeps the album above the water of its gloomier moments. Known to tackle heavy subject matter, Eels present a mixture of dark and light on Earth To Dora. Most songs revolve around minimal instrumentation, as Eels explore the dramatic potential of a relatively subdued method. Mark Oliver Everett rejoices and makes peace with sequential realities, even as they continue to gnaw.

Awkward sentiments pop up repeatedly throughout the album. Eels present them unvarnished, as they deal with them in a detached—but fearless manner. Icy Nordic surf sounds drive “Are You Fucking Your Ex”—a blue exorcism for Everett’s insecurities. The vocal refrain erupts between paranoid charges and righteous indignation. To his credit, he portrays himself even more explicitly as the bad guy on the part-declaration, part-homage “The Gentle Souls.”

“I Got Hurt” further mines uncomfortable inner spaces. “I got hurt, and it didn’t feel good,” Everett sings matter-of-factly—and one must wonder if this is his idea of a conversation starter. Everett’s salty yelp humanizes him, however, and he sounds resilient about the situation. Eels’ knack for songcraft and album pacing ensconces problematic impulses among joyful and sturdy musical themes. If moments stand out awkwardly, they are matched by their subtle resolutions.

Accessible production brings out warmth and clarity through the entire album. “Anything For Boo” drips with plain desire, as a twinkly music-box sound permeates the song. Everett’s inflections are exaggerated and his lyrics are relatable. Tender sentiments and a sense of contentment guide knowingly sappy lines. It’s a bit smothering and precious for an opening track, but a well-crafted pop song nonetheless.

“Are We Alright Again” enters with a jaunty man-on-the-street shuffle. Bright chords underscore Everett’s mumble, and it sounds like he’s having a right good day. “Step into the sunshine man it feels good/ Birds and bees jammin’ their theme for the neighborhood,” he sings, along with some choice spoken-word overdubs. Immersed in a space of contented curiosity, Everett delivers a nuanced single for a hard-won afternoon.

Earth To Dora’s success stems from its cohesiveness as an album. Moods shift organically, as levels of extroversion and introspection benefit from small adjustments. While the lyrics sometimes border the banal, no song overstays its welcome. Each feels full and complete in itself despite the material’s spartan bounds. Everett comes across as genuine and at least marginally self-assured. Taken as a whole, the record exudes patience and encourages the relinquishing of doubt.

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