These 33 brief but emotionally potent songs work their alchemy through a strange juxtaposition of a lucid, fresh sonic palette — there's practically no low end, and all the treble-y acoustic guitars, strings, celestes and the like are mixed and arranged to leave plenty of wide open space — and the grit in Eels leader Mark Oliver Everett's voice, clearly ground in so deep it will never come out.
That voice, rusted and deteriorating and caked with despair, bears more than a passing resemblance to Tom Waits '(Waits is an Eels fan, and makes a brief, guttural appearance on the twisted rave-up "Going Fetal"), and, like Waits, Everett relies on its corrosive effect to crucially roughen and dirty the sentimentality and prettiness that comes so naturally to him. The resemblance is compositional, too, especially on ballads, where Everett displays a Waitsian knack for classic, heartstring-tugging Tin Pan Alley melodies ("If You See Natalie" and "Suicide Life" are standouts).
Waits rarely sounds as purely, irredeemably sad as Everett, though, and on this record there's a constant battle between the bleakness of the singing (and most of the lyrics) and the overpowering beauty of the melodies, which stretch hopefully toward the sublime. If the happy music/sad words combo sounds a little trite and facile, well, just know that it hasn't been done this well in a long, long while.
What you get here is a grand emotional ambiguity, with songs like "Dust of Ages," a Mellotron hymn that is neither sad nor happy nor any other easily pegged emotion, that will tickle your feelings in some unexpected and seldom touched places. It's a reminder that smiling through tears — and meaning it — is a rare and delicate sensation.