Now in the throes of middle age, Mark Everett is as ambitious, forthright and melancholy as ever. Often going by the moniker “E,” the tormented singer-songwriter behind Eels confronts his experience of divorce with potency and maturity in the band’s latest album End Times. Weaving a tale replete with Eels’s customary themes (alienation, loss, insecurity and loneliness), the album adds a dimension of social commentary as Everett draws parallels between his failed relationship and a society that manufactures failed relationships.
End Times is an experiment that occasionally wants to cry “Eureka,” but often doesn’t pan out. At times, E draws gripping connections between his own experiences with intimacy and an outer world that lost its authenticity. When he describes “People sleeping / In Hazmat suits / Taping up their window” in “On My Feet,” he makes a haunting assertion that fear and alienation in society has invaded and spoiled his most intimate relationships. But when Everett likens his grief-stricken self to a suicide bomber looking for an easy way out in “Paradise Blues,” the lyrics seem to have been written more for shock value than meaningful artistic purpose.
Following six months after a previous album that explored the topic of desire, the 14 tracks in E’s “divorce album” gravitate between angst-filled bummer-rock and intimate melodies in Everett’s hypnotic vocals. End Times’s volatile blend of musical styles adds breadth to the album but it unfortunately falls short of coalescing into a unified work.
Sometimes the album’s tracks blend and complement each other harmoniously. Other times, they clash together in head-on collisions that just aren’t pleasant for listeners. This problem first rears its head between the opener and second track. The album’s opener, “The Beginning,” is a butterflies-and-rainbows indie-folk tune of a relationship in its beginning stages. But the second track, “Gone Man,” features beefy riffs and an overpowering rhythm, both very much discordant with the song it follows. Everett’s attempt to represent the spectrum of his relationship is respectable, but it doesn’t go off without a hitch.
Still, End Times glimmers with tracks like “A Line In the Dirt,” which recounts in beautiful melancholia the growing distance between E and his partner, the final argument that broke E’s marriage and his weighing uncertainty over whether he would ever return home. Spare details and subtle piano arrangements convey the vision of the gentle, troubled artist without devolving into sentimentalism.
In “I Need A Mother,” E’s confessions border on heartbreaking when he links his desire for an affectionate relationship to the loss of his mother to cancer. “I been your daddy for too long of a time / Need a little help, you know / Just once in a while,” he sings with an echo. Perhaps the best moments on the album are those like this one — when E’s confessions of personal experience trigger nuanced, penetrating self-assessments.
For a work fixated on alienation and lost love, the album is refreshingly upbeat and honest. “Well, it’s a wonder I survive,” E admits in the album’s hopeful final track, “And I’ll be all right.” There’s little bad faith and no villain in the story. Rather, it’s an artist making a candid and sometimes lacerating evaluation of his experiences, his former partner and his environment. End Times may not be groundbreaking, but it’s a welcome escape from the myopic, one-sided breakup albums that so often line store shelves.