Mark Oliver Everett may not be a household name, but his story is one of the most unique in all pop music. His saga has already been well-chronicled in his utterly essential memoirs Things the Grandchildren Should Know, so I'll keep it concise: Akin to an indie-rock Forrest Gump, Everett watches his loved ones all meet horrible fates (suicide, cancer, heart attack, 9/11) as he navigates the maze of mid-'90s music industry machinations, all while continuing to write songs at a prodigious rate, first performing them under the name E before enlisting a rotating cast of friends for live shows and playing under the name Eels. Like I said, it's a fascinating story (which is why I'll plug his book for the second time this paragraph). With Eels' new record, End Times, E has built a song cycle about loss, abandonement, and the simple human fear of dying alone, capturing the modern zeitgeist in what must feel to many people like the actual end times.
It may seem heretical to compare it with a record that has virtually been beatified (particularly here, with its deep local ties), End Times is a similar listening experience to Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. While this album doesn't quite compare with Tracks in terms of emotion, delicacy, profundity, ambiguity, melodicism, trenchancy, or wit, there is a similar tone of loss and regret. These themes should resonate with anyone familiar with Eels' oeuvre, ranging the cancer-themed Electro-Shock Blues to the epistemological ruminations of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Eels' most recent album, last year's Hombre Lobo, was a record of unrequited lust; here, he's lost the girl all over again and is trying to take the next step forward. It is impossible to read these songs as anything but autobiographical; for example, the now-46-year-old Everett wonders how he would have fared post-breakup in his younger days in, naturally, "In My Younger Days". Everett writes simple, unpretentious songs that can be unlocked with a basic sense of empathy and human understanding. The honesty of songs like "I Need a Mother" takes them near the border of overbearingness, yet giving them the ability to shatter the listener.
If this is his Blood on the Tracks, then "Paradise Blues" is his "Meet Me in the Morning," driven by a loping bassline and a ghostly organ. I wish Everett had further fleshed out his opening suicide bomber metaphor, as it had the potential to make a good song even more compelling. The title track is difficult to listen to: even while emulating a homeless man warning of the pending apocalypse, E breaks your heart with his haggard & exhausted vocal. There are momentary moments of escapism and lightness as well, in "Mansions of Los Feliz" and the deceptive "Gone Man". The best song of all may be the simplest: "Little Bird" features a gorgeous guitar line and E adds another to his repertoire of bird songs (once you read the explanation in his autobiography, go back & listen to "Little Bird" and try not to get a lump in your throat).
For all the bleak sadness and sorrow that envelops so much of Eels' music, E is always careful to leave the listener with a note of hope. All the Eels albums end with a song that contextualizes the entire album and looks ahead to face the next day. Here, it's a song called "On My Feet", and the title basically says it all. At six minutes, it meanders a bit, yet provides Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' essential fifth stage of grief: acceptance
But one thing I know that is true in this world
Is the love that I felt for you
One sweet day I'll be back on my feet
And I'll be alright
Every time I begin to worry about Mark Everett, he leaves us with a glimmer of light; a tiny nod of reassurance, as if he's telling us that he -- and we -- will be okay. Even after the end times, we'll wake up tomorrow morning, take a look around, and go forth. If we're like E, we'll have a song in our brain.