…And then, for their fourth LP, Eels would offer their fans something completely different. Before this point in their catalogue, the band has remained fairly passive and artful in their compositions as well as in the presentations of them (it was all very alt-) but, on Souljacker, the band takes a much more forceful and active approach; the guitars are crunchier, singer Mark Everett has a “rockier” tone in his voice and he utilizes either a more clipped phrasing or a petulant and sardonic croon regularly, contrasted with a few well-placed howls to build momentum. Needless to say, Souljacker immediately establishes itself as a very different kind of record for the Eels. It’s still alt-rock, but it’s unmistakably more ‘rock’ than ‘alt-‘.
Even if listeners are aware of the rockier face of the music on Souljacker is going to be ‘rockier,’ that doesn’t mean the band won’t knock them clean off their pins the moment “Dog Faced Boy” growls its way in on top of a scruffy guitar lick and a sparsely constructed drum pattern. Listeners will be able to feel the tiny hairs on the backs of their necks begin to stand at attention when Everett shuffles out sporting a vocal rasp which implies he was on a hard night of hard-drinking the night before. Lines like “You little punks think you own this town/ Well someday someone’s gonna bring you down/ Life ain’t pretty for a dog-faced boy,” combined with the haggard rasp of that voice, sound like fighting words of a ferocity that Everett has never expressed before, and he wears it well; here, he effortlessly convinces those listening to come down a dark alley with him because it just looks like good fun with a bad temperament – it could be fun. Just as they get ready to go though, the song ends and the singer pitches a perfect change-up in the form of the meticulously composed, seething “That’s Not Really Funny” to put them off-balance.
How “That’s Not Really Funny” works is as revealing as it is innovative within the context of the Eels’ sound. This time, the samples interact with the live instruments, and both seek to highlight each other; the loud and raucous guitar line in the song feeds off of the orchestrated sample’s energy (and volume) to get pulses racing, but the energy doesn’t dip when everything suddenly cuts out to give Mark Everett’s vocal a wide berth because lines like “Did you think that I would laugh when you said I was small/ Did you think that it would pass as if nothing at all/ You say a lot of funny things my little bunny/ And I almost always laugh – but that’s not really funny” command it. The words aren’t menacing on their face, but listeners will still get a chill when they hear them and they’ll feel like they’ve been slapped in the face when the reoccurring sample and overdriven guitar riff blast through to punctuate them too.
After that, as Souljacker‘s A-side continues, the music seeks to force attention on different aspects of each song by setting pairing tracks which regularly sit in counterpoint with each other. The sweet and romantic vibes of “Fresh Feeling” are offset by the chilly sonics and imagery built up in “Woman Driving, Man Sleeping,” for example, and when the band blows the whole thing off its hinges with the screaming, surly, loner imagery of “Souljacker Part 1,” listeners will just be left starry-eyed by the experience. That title track remains a revelation; Everett had shown that he wasn’t afraid to bare his teeth before in songs like “Flyswatter” and “Novacaine For The Soul,” but “Souljacker Part 1” is something else completely; this performance shatters senses, snaps necks like toothpicks and leaves without resolving any hard feelings. It’s so forceful that it should easily have ended the A-side of the album, but because “Friendly Ghost” remains in the fallout, it plays with less urgency than a hidden track.
The groovy hard feelings laid out by “Souljacker Part 1” extend beautifully over to the flip side of the album. After some bad static which opens the side, a sexy rhythm slithers out to introduce a “Teenage Witch” which will curl the lips of listeners back into a carnal sneer before a strange, witch’s brew of hard feelings and swampy audio production called “Bus Stop Boxer” casts a pall over the side’s play which is upheld through “Jungle Telegraph” and “World Of Shit.” Now, one might think that, because these songs are consistently slower of tempo and of a more dire emotional tenor, this side of Souljacker might get a little daunting but, in fact, the darkness proves to be pretty thrilling as Everett expertly dodges indulging any painful clichés or stereotypes which would normally be associated with darker, angrier and more desperate-feeling fare – and gives listeners something which is at once unmistakably ‘Eels’ as well as something which is a brand apart from everything the band had ever done before as well.
(Geffen/Universal Music Enterprises)