Mark Oliver Everett, aka E, is now 51 years old. He is the man behind the music of Eels. A prolific and consistently brilliant songwriter, he is also the author behind one of the best autobiographies I have ever read (a close run thing with the brilliant autobiography of professional wrestler Mick Foley, if you haven’t read, Have A Nice Day: A Tale Of Blood & Sweat Socks, you are missing out). E’s autobiography is a horrifically sad read; a list of all the tragedies that have occurred in his life is both shocking and incredibly long. The son of a well respected physicist, who also happened to be an obese, chain-smoking, alcoholic. He appeared in a brilliant documentary on the BBC, investigating both his fathers theories and his own relationship with him. The grandson of a man who coached both football and basketball at a collegiate level, he has, to my knowledge, never expressed any interest in a career as professional sportsman. He is, unsurprisingly a fascinating individual!
This album, The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett, is by my count the 15th studio album of his career. The first, Bad Dude In Love, came out 29 years ago. His highest charting album, Beautiful Freak, reached number five in the UK charts; but, without wanting to make us all feel very old indeed, that was 18 years ago. Since then every Eels album (so every E album, bar the rather odd MC Honky side project) has reached the Top 40, but nothing since 2000’s Daisies Of The Galaxy has entered the top 10. It’s the sort of consistent success that many acts would kill for, but it does begin to beg the question, do Eels have anything new to show us?
Last years album, Wonderful, Glorious, saw E stepping out of his comfort zone. Whilst the vast majority of Eels output consisted of songs written by E, and E alone, this was his most collaborative record to date. The tracks were recorded almost as extended jam sessions, a result almost definitely brought about by a rare moment of calm in the make up of the Eels touring band. It would seem by settling down, E was also trying something new and exciting. The record that followed was one of the most interesting the band have ever produced, a mish-mash of styles, a wonderful sense of freedom, and a riotous hard-rock sound. Whilst it recalled earlier works, the scrappy anger of Hombre Lobo, the scuzzy rock sound of Souljacker, and the gravel voiced uneasiness of Shootenany!, mainly it just sounded fresh.
Here on The Cautionary Tales…, we find a completely different beast. Eels have always made two kinds of records: angry, loud, rock records and sad, down-tempo, reflective records. There has been the odd curve ball that combined the two, often with the most memorable results, notably the brilliant double album Blinking Lights And Other Revelations. On this record however we are camped decisively in the second camp, no heavy rock bombast creeps out of your speakers here.
Interestingly, the recording process for The Cautionary Tales… started before Wonderful, Glorious. So excited by the process of creating the latter, he put the former on hold, returning to it only after releasing and touring. If this would imply a lack of faith in the material, it would be a misnomer. In reality it is quite possible that Wonderful, Glorious was some light relief on the way to getting round to completing this, a sabbatical from the serious business of documenting lifes struggles and challenges.
As you can guess from the title, this album could almost be seen as some sort of self-help guide; a wise old sage taking you under his wing, to let you know where he went wrong, and guide you on the path to happiness. The reflective tone is highly reminiscent of the career defining Blinking Lights. Indeed, this album plays out almost like an extended version of that albums closing track, Things The Grandchildren Should Be Knowing. On that track we saw a man on his death bed, looking back over the life he had led, the closing verse “I knew true love, and I knew passion, and the difference between the two, and I had some regrets, but if I had to do it all again, well that’s something I’d like to do” is in my eyes verging on perfection, indeed were it not for the rest of the track being untrue to my own personal life story I’d like it played at my funeral.
If that track was E looking back over his life from it’s final hours, here we get 51 year old E, a man in the midst of living his life, reflecting on what has happened so far. As such we get a somewhat paired back version, a gentle note on life rather than a grand sweeping statement. That the album is bookended by opening instrumental track Where I’m At, and closing track Where I’m Going, a reprise of the opener given a voice by the addition of lyrics, it is a perfect summary of the album. A reflection of what is happening now, looking backward yes, but also looking forward. Assessing the past but equally preparing for the future.
Parallels, recalls 2010’s Tomorrow Morning. A gentle picked acoustic, punctuated by the gentle electronic swells of a volume pedal. The choruses are given a wonderful brightness by the addition of what sounds like a mandolin, giving the whole song a classic pop sound, in contrast to the downbeat vocal delivery. Lyrically we find E asking “ever get the feeling that the story isn’t done?” the whole story plays out like someone waking up from a period of lethargy and disinterest, realising both what they have and what they have lost, with a sense of new found hope “what I’ll become is slowly taking shape, to start again is not the end but altogether new, and I’m never giving up till I find you”.
Throughout the album there is a series of lyrical themes, most notably tracks that relate to the one, or ones, that got away. So we hear about Agatha Chang, who “even when she didn’t feel so good, she looked alright” “wasn’t mean, didn’t cheat and she didn’t lie” but as E tells us “how could I have been so blind and cruel” set to a simple acoustic guitar and swells of strings, it’s an open letter to try and win Agatha back, but “it’s just a song, and you’re probably long gone.” Kindred Spirit is exactly what you’d imagine. A girl who gave E “the best day I ever spent” but now leaves him living every day “in regret and pain” because “you just don’t let that get away”
Elsewhere we see E on less romantic, and more contemplative form. Reviewing his life against where he thought it would be. On Gentleman’s Choice, a stunning, stripped bare piano ballad, he notes, “when I was young I had a dream I would be held in high esteem” but now he finds “the world has no use for my kind.” There’s a sense of accepting your flaws and moving on despite them, this theme continues on Answers. Here E’s “meaning to find meaning, in the most meaningless of times” as he “thought I’d have some answers by now”. It is all set to the sound of childlike glockenspiel and very grown up string backings. The contrast in music and lyrical themes works wonderfully in creating a sense of both hope and hopelessness. Mistakes of My Youth too carries on the theme, “in the waiting days ahead, I’ve got to look back down the road” and there is the sense this album is one E had to write to put a chapter of his life to bed and allow him to move on. “I can’t keep defeating myself, I can’t keep repeating the mistakes of my youth” he sings, the swathes of strings sound like someone finding redemption, and even closure, because he is not “a younger man”. It’s a highlight on this album, and one that fits into what would be a frankly stunning greatest hits collection.
On closing track, Where I’m Going, Eels reprise the same wheezing music as the opening track. Now though we get E in full on Tom Waits gravel voiced at a piano form. He sings “I can’t say I know what will happen tomorrow, I can’t say I know if it’s joy or sorrow” but he’s “got a good feeling about where I’m going” as the piano chords crash, and the trumpet woozes like a drunk at closing time. As a moment of hope in album of regrets it’s utterly wonderful!
What we are left with on this album is another excellent set of songs, wonderfully put together and arranged stunningly. Concurrent themes run throughout giving the album a wonderful sense of coherency and it all flows superbly. The problems lie when you assess this album against the man’s own back catalogue. In the hands of anyone else you would be overjoyed, but with Eels there is a danger of treading old ground. Individually tracks seem to borrow bits and pieces from older work, and even the album as a whole does at times sway dangerously close to the stunning Blinking Lights and the greatly underrated End Times. It is a brilliant album, one that enhances a stunning back catalogue, but ultimately doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been before. None the less it’s a wonderful ride to take time and time again.
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is out now on E Works. Eels tour throughout the UK & Europe, from June onwards