The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett
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. Everett’s dusky voice and the stripped down accompaniment of skeletal drums, guitar, piano and melancholy strings keeps the mood somber even when the occasional upbeat track appears to break the ice.
The Debbie Downer aspect of Everett’s work never — well seldom — feels oppressive because of the care with which he crafts his material. The chiming sounds of a celeste, usually smile-inducing, bring additional gravity to songs that are telescoped by the album’s advisory title. He had worked on these tunes, left them, then returned and removed anything that felt like “single” material. What’s left is a moving, somewhat dour though always self-aware collection (this is his eleventh release) bolstered by subtle strings, haunting backing vocals and words of hard won wisdom for others to avoid some of life’s pitfalls Everett has fallen into. Call it the “Mistakes of My Youth” as he does, but more importantly the tunes “Where I’m At,” “Where I’m From” and “Where I’m Going” that appear as opener, midpoint and closing sections of the disc indicate just how much he feels his life lessons can be shared by others.
Maybe a few less Tom Waits/Randy Newman styled molasses-like piano ballads might make the whole listening experience less heavy. Yet Everett has never taken the easier way out where his songwriting is concerned, and he’s clearly not starting now. This is unquestionably slow going and perhaps best taken in smaller doses, but it’s ultimately rewarding for those willing to take advice from a guy whose darkness and internal demons have remained key components to his emotionally naked creativity.