“Everything was beautiful and free/In the beginning” – “The Beginning” from End Times.
My first introduction to The Eels was with the CD A Man Called E, released in 1992. The artist responsible for that work was Mark Oliver Everett (aka E), who sang songs about a sad young man “staring out the window with a blue hat on,” while feeling pretty darn sorry for himself. There was not a lot of life experience in those songs but they were beautiful and melancholy — proof positive that an LP’s worth of self-pity could be a worthwhile listen.
Everett eventually formed The Eels, staying at the forefront of that band as it changed personnel and style over the years.
Now, after a four year gap between releases, the Eels return to the fray with End Times, which, with its rich melancholia and spare arrangements, is reminiscent of that first E album. But there is a big difference.
In End Times our protagonist has made it to middle age, wiser and sadder with an excellent reason to feel miserable. He has lost of the love of his life – not by death but through a divorce.
The album takes us on a musical journey of E dealing with a relationship gone sour, self evaluation, and coping with the pain of living every day. E is not an optimist by any means. In “Gone” he laments: “Jesus loved me but it’s over now.” His depression is such that in order to make sure he is alive, he has conversations with his dog.
Depression begets reflection and in “In My Younger Days,” E tells us that “back then this wouldn’t have been so hard”; he would have just shrugged it off, and put it down to his “ongoing education.” A gorgeous, aching melody complements this wistful homage to lost youth and the sad confession that all he wants is his lost love back.
In “A Line In the Dirt” we are invited to witness the couple’s final argument, which ends with our hero driving away, unsure if he’ll ever return. Subsequently, in “Paradise Blues” he equates himself with a suicide bomber yearning for a quick out (for himself and his ex) — an easy way to claim some distant reward.
Then, in “Unhinged,” we are made to wonder if he is the one hitting bottom — or his ex? This isn’t made clear but like any good story the plot isn’t all cut and dry; the listener needs to occasionally decide things for himself. Finally breaking down, E confesses in “Mother” that he needs a mother. He yearns to be cared for.
As the final two tracks play through, we are given some hope for our troubled friend’s emotional survival. In “Little Bird,” he confides to a feathered friend on his porch about how much he still “misses that girl.” Yet in “On My Feet,” he tells us assuredly that “I’m sure I’ve been through worse” and that “One sweet day I’ll be back on my feet.” The music is heartfelt and simple, and we find ourselves rooting for him, holding our breath until the song fades, only then daring to rejoice.
In less capable hands, an album dealing with heartache and healing might turn into a maudlin mess. But E’s songs are short, beautiful and spare and he relates his story with simple, heartfelt eloquence. The rasp in his voice is a product of life experience and his story rings true.
End Times is a heartbreaking journey but well worth the ride. It will be released January 19th on Vagrant Records.