The best of the albums by the enigmatic band Eels tend to come from a well of deep sadness, expressed from the sleepy, grumpy, slightly passive-aggressive viewpoint of Mark Oliver Everett, also known as E. So do the worst of the Eels recordings, leaving the fan to wonder if they’re going to get another Electro-Shock Blues or Blinking Lights And Other Revelations, or they’re getting something that doesn’t reach those lofty heights. Tragedy, in its short-term immediacy, separates one from the other, fueling work that can often be brilliant. Lacking that impetus, Everett sometimes comes across as looking for fights that aren’t there, trying to itch up a spark that will make something great happen. On those records, things come across more like empty instigation. Fortunate for the fans, but not so for Everett it seems, he has a new muse for his musical miseries.
End Times is a most fitting title for his latest collection as it is, in part, a musical travelogue through the musician’s divorce. The first track, “The Beginning,” is as intimate as it gets, with E and his guitar and sparse augmentation prefacing the tale with of he and his future wife came together. It has the air of someone recording cassettes to get out the inner monologue, to sort through the aftermath. It’s tender, lonely and raw, as is the rest of the album. Occasionally the songs are gilded with unnecessary noise, like the otherwise haunted “In My Younger Days” getting touched up with computer noise in a light, agitated warble, like the power of what’s already there isn’t enough. I assure you, it is. All five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) get time on the stage.
In recent times, E’s fascination with ornate instrumentation has produced fascinating tunes, but his double-tracked voice and guitar on “Mansions Of Los Feliz” seem so perfectly suited, like nothing else was necessary. Then, on the very next track “A Line In The Dirt,” piano and gorgeously restrained horns add weight to the narrative, a fight that went way too far and the emotional barriers resulting thereafter. Everett’s voice has never, ever sounded so powerful or broken, and his falsetto in the chorus has the air of whispered apologies through locked bathroom doors, apologies rejected much as the lyrics infer.
This is not an easy pop-song kind of album. You do not approach it with expectations of dancing, or of sing-alongs even though some of the simple, expressive melodies implore you to do so. It’s a long letter on short memorandum paper, limited space allotted with extra scribbles squatting in the margins. At only 40 minutes, each one of the 14 tracks has its own special punch, but taken as a whole, it’s the note you send to the one you love knowing there isn’t a single word from the human tongue that can undo the damage. The message, while begging reconciliation, rambles in its own subconscious acceptance, knowing these are indeed end times and nothing will ever be the same again.
The breakup album is a unique animal — few can make something great out of such wreckage, and while End Times demands much from the listener in terms of attention, it rewards in equal measure. Out of obvious pain, Eels have produced something that truly is great. It’s just a shame that Mark Everett achieved it through such circumstances.
End Times is available from Amazon.com.
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