Release Date: Apr 22, 2014
Record label: Relativity
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
There’s an inherent soft-focus to Mark Everett’s worldview. His jagged details scrape your flesh to the bone, but his bitterness or rancor is tempered with a romanticism that makes listeners ache more than rage. This postmodern sensitive—landing somewhere between Tom Waits’ raspy reality and Jackson Browne’s tenderness—walks a line between desire and doom with dignity and just the slightest bit of slump-shouldered resignation.
Eels brainchild Mark Oliver Everett is a master of melancholy—unsurprisingly, given his troubled, tragic life—but often infuses it with whimsical humor. Not on this 11th Eels album, however. Beginning with the lugubrious death march instrumental of “Where I Am” (hint: not in a good place), this is a record of painful, plaintive soul-searching.
After last year's uncharacteristically upbeat Wonderful, Glorious album, The Cautionary Tales… finds Eels frontman E on more familiar ground. Across an intensely intimate 13 songs, he sings of love lost, soul-searching, recrimination, regret and, eventually, some sort of understanding and coming to terms with the mistakes he's made. The music matches the mood, quiet orchestration replacing the neo-hard-rock sounds of its predecessor, with the exception of the beautifully judged wistfulness of Where I'm From.
As Eels’ main man has made so much of his personal life public in the past – book ‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’ and BBC documentary series ‘Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives’ the most notable cases in point – it’s not out of the ordinary to assume an album titled ‘The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett’, beginning ‘Where I’m At’, ending ‘Where I’m Going’ and with its mid-point marked ‘Where I’m From’, might just be autobiographical. If it is, as he sings in that oh-so-familiar vocal “I was young and dumb” in ‘Where I’m From’, it’s the story of Everett basically admitting he was a bit of a dick in his youth, and using these thirteen tracks to count just a few of his follies. There’s the titular ‘Agatha Chang’, who he “should have stayed with”; the “regret and pain” of ‘Kindred Spirit’; the ‘Answers’ he thought he’d have by now; the doomed relationship of ‘Lockdown Hurricane’.
It's been barely a year since Eels released their last album Wonderful, Glorious, a more spontaneous, fun, and less directly confessional record than one might come to expect from Mark ‘E’ Everett and company. Fourteen months later, they have released their eleventh studio album, which was largely written before but recorded after Wonderful, Glorious. The album sees a return to the more personal side of Eels, and this is reflected in the album’s title - The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett.
Review Summary: Uncomfortably essential.Last year’s ramshackle Wonderful, Glorious, an Eels album that continued the relatively optimistic tone of the third of his late ‘00s concept trilogy in Tomorrow Morning, was, for Mark Oliver Everett, an unusually off-the-cuff release. It’s only a little surprising, then, that his eleventh studio album returns to the ruthlessly confessional style that Everett’s millennial output has largely been characterized by. Where Wonderful, Glorious avoided the problem of diminishing returns that has occasionally afflicted Everett’s recent career by being, well, sort of happy, the accurately named The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett takes the opposite tack.
E’s got some front. The last time I caught Eels live they were playing Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ at V Festival dressed as homeless hippies, and now he expects people to swallow a mournful acoustic album about existential misery and girls, with flutes and cornets on. But that’s the self-effacing charm of Mark Oliver Everett; his is the clownish tragedy of a Pierrot or a Tony Hancock, a downbeat wit with a dark side.
The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett isn’t necessarily an album that heralds the return of ‘classic Eels‘, even if all the signs are present and correct. Eels has always subtly changed direction with every release, though the last five years of Everett’s career has particularly emphasised this. He’s been on lusty, loved-up form with 2009’s Hombre Lobo, 2010’s Tomorrow Morning was joyous and buoyant (proving to be the counterpoint to End Times, which came out seven months prior) and last year’s patchy Wonderful, Glorious was filled with punchy hooks and immediacy.
EelsThe Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett(Relativity)3 out of 5 stars “Life is hard/and so am I.” Back in 1996, Mark Oliver Everett opened his first Eels album with those words from the prophetic “Novocaine for the Soul” and nearly two decades later his outlook hasn’t changed much. Actually, based on this song cycle of a love he apparently tossed aside and now deeply regrets, expressed most directly in the muted “Agatha Chang,” circumstances have gotten worse. Those looking for a glimmer of light in this subdued 13-track set won’t find much to latch onto.
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett starts with an overture, because of course it does. If there’s one fascinating development in the later-year songwriting of the Eels’ frontman, it’s the theatrical approach he’s taken to autobiography. It started with Blinking Lights & Revelations, a double record made with a rolling cast of Everett’s contemporaries, split into suites and separated by street-lit instrumentals.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. An interesting point that I heard somebody make about Eels recently is that they'd boast a much more impressive discography if they'd released fewer records, and employed tighter quality control. There's probably some truth to that - their twelve full-lengths to date have by no means been universally lauded - but it's also true that their catalogue now serves as an honest document of Mark Everett's evolution as a musician; there's been plenty of hits and misses, but they've all helped to display his progression to the world in warts-and-all fashion.
Eels' Mark Everett has never been known for his optimism. Even in its sunniest moments, his music is always cut with an element of spiraling introversion. So with a title like The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, it's pretty clear album number 11 isn't going to be all shits and giggles..
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett would be a great title for an Eels box set that illustrates the uncomfortably direct, often profound way that its leader, the titular Everett, has sung about death, regret, and the general piss and shit of everyday life since the mid 1990s. Alas, it's the name of the band's 11th studio album, a roughshod batch of breakup songs too fragile to support the conceptual weight of its title. Like everything Everett creates, Cautionary Tales sounds honest, and has more than a few moments of stark, innocent beauty.
Mark Everett cites John Lennon's intensely personal Plastic Ono Band as one of the chief inspirations behind Eels' 11th album. Indeed, recording songs called things like Mistakes of My Youth became so intense and personal for Everett that he abandoned them at one point, returning to them only after he had recorded last year's Wonderful, Glorious. Like Beck's Morning Phase, Everett deals with his heartache over an overtly pretty backdrop (bassoon, musical saw and celesta all feature) and things chime together on the instrumental Where I'm at, which he reprises as final track Where I'm Going, complete with Tom Waits impersonation.
“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.” Perhaps quoting Anaïs Nin at a time and in a space like this (particularly while occupying a similar unseeing model of myself) may come across rather callow, encroaching on unreasonable even, but let’s be honest, as befits a friend.
It’s impressive that someone could sound so sad for so many years yet never come across as pathetic. Mark “E” Everett has made a career of sad sad songs that somehow carry a quiet strength within. But don’t confuse strength with hope as his songs aren’t the “things are bad but it’s gonna be alright.” kind. Instead they simply give an honest take on bad news, sad situations and loss.
It's not like Mark Oliver Everett (hereafter known as E) hasn't dealt with these themes before. His whole recording career, most of it done under the Eels moniker, has been full of brilliantly crafted pop songs that tour death, terminal illness, regrets, lost dear ones, a veiled belief in better days and times overlaid by thick angst, and now and then, actual bursts of bouncing joy and humor. So there's nothing really new thematically on the 11th Eels album, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, and even its sparse, stripped-down, and lightly orchestrated acoustic folk feel is something E has often visited.
Like Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Eels mainman Mark “E” Everett is a pretty unusual guy who, for the last couple of decades, has been making fairly straighforward music. Sure, his output has dealt with some desolate themes – suicide, mental illness, terrorism, terminal disease- but Eels’ bleakness was (in the early stages of Everett’s career at least) often neatly bound up in radio-friendly, if slightly oddball, indie-pop packages like “Novocaine for the Soul“, “Susan’s House“, “Last Stop: This Town” and “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues.” Saliently though, that run of singles fizzles out almost 15 years ago.