Review: The Eels "End Times"

This is a re-post from the Bearcast Music blog. Head over there to check out reviews of current albums, which can be heard on Bearcast. I wrote this review on Sunday, February 21, 2010.

Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett, better known as “E,” has made a cottage industry out of his personal pain and suffering.

His body of work, from the seminal Electro-Shock Blues to his sprawling magnum opus Blinking Lights, has drawn heavily from an autobiography laced with cancer, suicide, and insanity. As his family dies off and his lovers leave him, E industriously sets these tragic tales to catchy melodies.

The most recent Eels album, End Times, makes me want to hurt myself.

But in a good way.

End Times comes hot on the heels of Hombre Lobo, with only six months separating the two albums, and they couldn’t be any more different. Conceived as a pair, Hombre Lobo is about the blossoming of love between E and his wife, while End Times is about their bitter divorce.

The album shuffles off the glossy production values of earlier Eels albums, and favors a “Band in a Box” sound. Glimpses of the old Eels occasionally shine through, thanks to the return of drummer Butch (Jonathan Norton) after seven long years of estrangement.

It’s easy to call E’s lyrics self-absorbed, if you’re not willing to go along for the ride. He captures the essence of depression, singing “I take small comfort in a dying world, I’m not the only one who’s feeling this pain” in “Gone Man Gone.” Such negativity doesn’t have universal appeal, but it’s perfectly at home on a breakup album for grownups.

It’s odd to hear E speak so personally about his relationship with his ex wife, which was kept almost entirely under wraps until the publishing of his autobiography Things the Grandchildren Should Know in 2008. Prior love songs from the group were written in the third person, and E’s discomfort with the subject reveals itself in some kind-of clunky lyrics.

End Times is varied in its sounds, drifting from frail electric ballads like “End Times” to the raucous rockabilly of “Gone Man Gone” and “Paradise Blues.”

The album has three must-listen tracks, each demonstrating E’s mastery of simple melodies and heartbreaking lyrics.

“A Line in the Dirt” is a piano ballad whose chord structure lifted almost exactly from E’s song “Manchester Girl,” a B-side from 20 years ago. It sets a simple scene of a man making appeals to his wife through a locked bathroom door, as she makes him realize that, in reality, he wants to be alone. A subtle orchestral arrangement of strings and horns swells as he accepts this, and drives off into the dark.

“Mansions of Los Feliz” is the acoustic confessional of a shut-in who’s trying to ignore the outside world and forget his past. The song stumbles when E breaks into a falsetto “la-la” chorus over the bridge, but the rest is A-grade classic Eels.

“Little Bird” is an astoundingly beautiful and frail song. E sings to a bird on his porch, his only friend, about how much he misses his wife. This is accompanied by a soft, clean electric guitar arpeggiating over a nearly-inaudible orchestra. The song hearkens back to the title track of Daisies of the Galaxy, another underrated gem from the band’s library.

End Times isn’t for everyone. It’s more melancholy than prior Eels albums, which is saying quite a bit. It’s easy to miss the beauty of the arrangements, in the face of the ugly words laid over top of them. It’s also easy to miss the arc of the story. Like all Eels albums, it spends a great deal of time wallowing in despair, but eventually it gets a grip and realizes that things might just be okay after all. Hardly triumphant, but it counts for something.

Score: 8 out of 10