Watching a performer exorcise demons isn’t supposed to be fun. It can, however, be wholly compelling — a description quite fitting for the spare Gotham show staged Saturday by Mark Oliver Everett (better known simply as “E”) and his Eels. Even as E’s music has grown darker, his sense of humor has grown more palpable — as evidenced by a wry curtain call in which he offered the crowd, “Thanks for playing our little cat-and-mouse game.” The vibe was even weirder earlier in the set when E, seated at an undersized electric piano, led the band into an industro-swamp stomp that slowly parted to reveal itself as a cover of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.”
There’s very little sweetness and light to be found in the Eels better-known work, what with allegories of mental illness and terminal disease bound together in enervating dirges like “Electro-Shock Blues” and “Going to the Funeral.” That they come from E’s real life gives him the chance to slip in a bit of tragicomic ad-libbing (well served by an alternately guttural and whimsical voice that recalls Pere Ubu stalwart David Thomas).
The band’s set offered little in the way of chromatic variety — growing a bit more visceral when E moved to an ancillary drum kit for the brutally self-eviscerating “Dog Faced Boy” and almost Martin Denny-ish on the unnerving, lounge-ish “That’s Not Really Funny.”
For the most part, however, the quartet squeezed out one smoldering down-tempo tune after another, painful anecdotes and harsh synthesizer lines building like a figurative version of Pink Floyd’s wall. Daunting, yes, but occasionally off-putting, too — particularly given E’s eerie glower.
The band’s minimalist sound was fleshed out considerably by the guitar work of Joe Gore, who tossed in some postpunk gloom one moment and added a spark worthy of Rudy Van Gelder the next. By set’s end, he and E had broken the sonic cycle with the flighty waltz “Daisies of the Galaxy” and the utterly charming “I Like Birds.”
The Eels will play the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles April 7.