Eels records are strange phenomena. Unlike, say, a Spoon album, one doesn’t count down to release date with bated breath. Unlike, say, a Vampire Weekend record, one doesn’t become avalanched in a sea of hype. Rather, every Eels record that comes along is a pleasant surprise, a regular reminder of an unassuming, understated, yet incredibly consistent songwriter and performer. That’s how I felt when End Times came around. When it was offered up for review, to me exclusively, my response was that it was kind of tradition, right? I mean, I’ve been following E ever since an early ’90s campus appearance before Eels was even a twinkle in his bespectacled eye. I’ve written the few Eels reviews for Treble that have appeared since its inception. I’m a fan, to be sure, but more than that, I feel a connection with Mr. E (a dubious name), Mark Oliver Everett.
I can’t claim to relate to Everett’s life. If ever there were someone who could claim to have led a tough life, this is the guy. But, I think those who go through any hard times can relate to his music. Everett’s gift is being able to take specific events, turn them into poetically ambiguous circumstances, and allow access to others. After all, who hasn’t wanted a little Novocain for the soul from time to time? But this time, it seemed fate played a hand that I had not seen in the deck. End Times, Eels’ eighth effort (how’s that for alliteration?), springs from yet another dark event in Everett’s existence (there I go again), a recent divorce. I, too, had felt the sting and pain of a dissolving marriage, and so felt a certain connection to this particular set of songs.
You’re probably at least getting a sense of what End Times has to offer, but let me be frank, this album is just downright sad. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, this is one of Eels’ strongest works to date, filled with intense imagery, thoughtful lyrics and plaintive melodies, but you should be prepared. If you’re looking for another “Hey Man, Now You’re Really Livin'” or “Last Stop: This Town,” you won’t find it here. There are a few rocking moments, but those moments are littered with the detritus of a broken relationship. Throughout End Times, E looks at the divorce and the relationship from different angles, always with a fresh perspective. “Younger Days” is just such an example, in which E surmises that had this happened when he was younger, it wouldn’t have affected him as much. He ends it with the severely understated line, knowing his history, “I don’t need any more misery to teach me what I should be / I just need you back.”
Most of E’s contemplation rests on his loneliness. I can relate. Loneliness perpetuates itself. When you’re hurting, you don’t want to be around people, but then you start to miss human contact, and that makes you hurt again. It’s a vicious cycle. E puts it best in a little poetic snippet called “Apple Trees.” I won’t transcribe it here, but no one has ever captured a feeling I’ve had as much as this 40 second aside. Throughout different tracks, E either places blame or resigns himself to harsh realities. Each is heartbreaking. “A Line in the Dirt” is one of the more tearjerking tracks I’ve heard in some time, with E asking his partner, “Do you want to be alone?” to which she replies, “No, I don’t wanna be alone, but I think that you do.” Later, E admits that sometimes he just needs a mother, and then converses with a little bird on his porch about his fate in life. The album ends with “On My Feet,” and if you’ve been able to traverse End Times emotionally unscathed up to this point, this one will get you.
I don’t remember who said it, and I don’t remember the exact quotation, word for word, but I heard once, “You don’t have to suffer for your art, but if you suffer, you absolutely need to use it in your art.” E has mastered this to the nth degree. End Times may not be the lightest of pop fare, but it is an indelible work of intense emotion and a window into the human condition. Albums like this come along only rarely, and when they do, they must be savored.
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man