On the rear page of the booklet contained inside End Times, the latest album from Eels, we are helpfully directed to “Other EELS CDs you may or may not enjoy”. There are, from Beautiful Freak to Useless Trinkets and including the Meet The Eels best of, ten records in the list, one of which was a double album. That first record was released in 1996, and 11 records in 14 years is not a bad strike rate. It might, too, be the source of my awkward relationship with the band. For every Daisies of the Galaxy which I listen to death, there’s a Souljacker which I just can’t get into. Complicating the issue is the fact that no Eels album is properly bad – Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is, I’m quite sure, a work of sprawling intelligence, but it’s one I have never figured out or quite warmed to.
Eels is, of course, essentially the solo project of one Mark Oliver Everett, or E as he often prefers to be known, and End Times is his break-up album. It is, however, one with significant thought put into it – the break-up it chronicles happened in 2005. There’s always been this deliberate tention in E’s music between the trope of the guileless troubador and the elaborate artifice of his songcraft. Most of his lyrics curl wryly at the edges, as on this album’s ‘Nowadays’: “And trouble is a friend of mine/ I’d like to leave behind / I like my friends more refined.” Moments like this are what relieve E’s often despairing experiences of the world. On ‘Little Bird’ – a typically, almost manipulatively, poignant lament – he sings, “Little bird I guess you’re right / I can’t let it take me without a fight / But right now I can’t see making sense of this world.”
E’s trick for the catchy but catching melody, a singable tune which doesn’t quite make the turns we’d expect, is also in strong evidence here, amidst the sparseness of these home-recorded four-track arrangements. In many ways, the simplicity and arch gentleness of the songs most evokes Daisies of the Galaxy, but in all honesty the most successful songs would be more comfortable in E’s alt.rock records: both ‘Paradise Blues’ and ‘Gone Man’ stand out amongst the mid-tempo shoegazing as songs which best pull together E’s pose of depressed frustration. They also get to the heart of the album’s purpose, which is as hoary as singing away the blues (its last line is “I just gotta get back on my feet”). For every admission of inevitable failure – on this front, ‘I Need A Mother’ is another highlight – there is a sweet memory (‘Apple Trees’) or a bit of modest defiance (‘Unhinged’).
End Times might at times seem to repeat itself, but its unity is also a considerable achievement. Perhaps a tad over-familiar, then, but not so much so that it breeds contempt.