With the exclusion of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Mark Oliver Everett’s work under the Eels moniker for the last decade has largely been little more than mildly inspired tongue-in-cheek baroque pop. Many have pointed out that this could well be a result of how the toweringly personal Electro-Shock Blues put off so many listeners with its intensely emotional material, and it makes sense. Still, while scaling back that aspect has certainly made the Eels more accessible, it’s doubtfully a coincidence that three of Everett’s last four albums were dominated with just passably catchy music when it was clear that he was capable of much, much more. On his eighth full length as the Eels, End Times, he chronicles a messy divorce and general anxiety over aging with a great deal of understandable angst, and it’s most likely because of this that he sounds more genuine than he has in years.
Having been put out just shy of a year after his last release, Hombre Lobo, the idea that End Times was written in a fashion similar to Beck’s Sea Change (driven by heartache and created rather quickly) isn’t out of the question. While this isn’t quite as profound as Beck’s melancholic masterpiece, it has the same sense of urgency in most places and the same overall gloom. Despite this, Everett still maintains his sad sarcasm, just without the irony. This is by far his best method of delivery, simply because it feels so honest; it’s a large part of what made Electro-Shock Therapy so damn good. The story he narrates in the single A Line in the Dirt is a perfect example: his distant lover locks herself in the bathroom, so he resorts to pissing outside, and singing about it in that heartbreaking voice of his. Making this kind of sardonic humor into a painfully beautiful song is truly his forte.
The heavier songs (at least heavy by Eels standards) have a great sense of vigor as well; cuts like Paradise Blues and Unhinged bring to mind aggressive songs from earlier albums that came across as watered down, not for lack of songwriting but conviction. Here they flourish because he’s got fire in his voice, and it doesn’t feel like he’s simply repeating himself. On others, such as the nakedly honest Nowadays and I Need a Mother, he makes impressive use of his knack for hooks and while his frail, weathered voice isn’t exactly anything new, he displays none of the contrivances that have marred a lot of his songwriting since 2000′s Daisies of the Galaxy.
While it’s not quite as good as Electro-Shock Blues, it’s wonderful to hear Everett this passionate again, even if it is yet again over loss. This is especially true for someone who’s followed him since his surprise hit Novocaine for the Soul back in 1996; his formula had been stale for a long while, and especially after the bland Hombre quashed the hopes that Blinking Lights restored, it’s good to know that the Eels are still able to be as sharp as they’ve ever been.