By Dom Sinacola; photo by Piper Ferguson on April 4, 2013
"I feel good," he reports with a bit of vinegar in his voice. He’s in Los Feliz, and it’s not actually vinegar; it’s however one would describe the sound of a man who seems to only speak in deadpan. “I feel glorious, wonderful,” he confirms, and this he punctuates with a chuckle—which is helpful, because it’s not often Mark Oliver Everett feels this way. He wouldn’t blame you for not believing him.
He is, after all, about to put out his 10th full-length as Eels, and it’s an album whose sad-sack lyrics and emotional polarity seem right in line with the past 20 years or so Everett’s been recording music under the ominous initial “E.” Wonderful, Glorious (yes, he was making a joke) is a heady dose of pop concision ponging almost democratically between plaintive acoustic ballads, Tom Waitsian pot-and-pan stomp and whatever would sound at home pouring from Elvis Costello’s maw. It’s a sample platter of Everett’s strengths as a songwriter: tight melodies fit intuitively into the pocket of an overarching groove, and meanwhile his woodgrain croon both belies and draws out the rawness of his lyrics.
Yet Wonderful, Glorious is a typical Eels album, as good a doorway as any into the almost-50-year-old’s well-documented but harrowed psyche. Which could be said for anything Everett’s done, really; Eels’ debut, 1996’s Beautiful Freak, set the path E still maps today, commingling a variety of styles, from country to garage rock to hip-hop detritus, on the proverbial abattoir floor using whatever means E had at his disposal. Pulling together a handful of musicians (including a trombone-wielding Jon Brion), the album was DreamWorks Records’ very first release, and it found instant acclaim. Beautiful Freak’s music was in Homicide; it was in Shrek.
Then, in 1996, Everett’s sister Elizabeth, who had long suffered from schizophrenia, committed suicide; in 1998, his mother Nancy passed away from lung cancer. Mark found himself the only living member of his nuclear family, with his father, heralded physicist Hugh Everett, stricken by a fatal heart attack 16 years before. With Eels just a duo—only drummer Butch Norton remained—Everett turned to his ever-growing coterie of musician cohorts to help him craft his response: 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues. It’s no presumption that Blues is considered by many Eels aesthetes to be Everett’s finest and most-realized work; an often bleak and surprisingly tender collection of tiny ideas, Blues pares sorrow of its austerity and reveals loss in quiet, mundane moments. Ever-present is Everett’s penchant for playing both sides: “Got a sky that looks like Heaven/Got an Earth that looks like shit,” he sighs on “Climbing Up to the Moon.” Did that pass for optimism back then? Today, E demures, “I don’t really like to revisit that one.”
Follow-up Daisies of the Galaxy in 2000 toned down the dread; it would not have been a stretch to think he was getting better. The album even ends in obscene triumph, E all, “Goddamn right, it’s a beautiful day.”
A solo tour with Fiona Apple, recording help from Peter Buck, the same piano Neil Young used on After the Gold Rush: Everett finished up his time at DreamWorks with 2002’s Souljacker and 2003’s Shootenanny!, returning to the more viscous aggression of Beautiful Freak. The label folded, Everett grew an insane beard, possibly became a cigar aficionado, signed to Vagrant and he finally finished up Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, a two-disc, seven-year retrospective about, Everett claimed, him dealing with the mystery of “God.”
The double-album is nothing if not cohesive, chronicling yet again Everett’s struggle with the existential, a labor manifest by break-ups and break-downs, by pessimism and even weirder positivity, by seven years of toy instruments thrown against radiators and then recorded in E’s basement. In it he sounds as vital as he did at 30, his voice seemingly unchanged. Though E wouldn’t release another studio album until 2009’s Hombre Lobo, which began a trilogy of concept albums (with End Times and Tomorrow Morning in 2010), the years following Blinking Lights saw E release several live albums, a compilation of B-sides/rarities, a best of, an autobiography and a Nova special, “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” a television documentary in which Everett attempts to reconnect with his deceased father while investigating the man’s legacy as the first person to postulate the “many-worlds interpretation.”
Eels will tour soon with the same band who recorded Wonderful, Glorious. This is something he would have done one, two decades before, and something he will do when he releases his 11th album, which is almost cosmically preordained. Eels is a band of refreshing non-linearity, a band with the same struggles as ever, the same insatiable sound, headquartered as always in Los Feliz; a band with 10-plus places to start. “I hope to be an inspiration for you kids…or not,” Everett says. “Been recording for 20 years. That’s an accomplishment, I suppose.” F
E picks 3 Eels albums you should already own
It was my fourth for DreamWorks…right? Lemme see: [counts] one, two, three, four… It was a hard one to put out. [It was] this greasy, broken, filthy thing, more rock than they’d ever heard in my music before. It wasn’t what they expected, but it was what I needed to make then.
Blinking Lights and Other Revelations
Blinking Lights was difficult in that it took a long time to make, but I feel like it follows my journey throughout that time well… There must be a line that goes through [all of my albums] in that each one represents what I needed and wanted to do at the time.
We had a lot of fun recording it… It’s different in that it’s all [composed] of electronic instruments, but it still manages to have this warmth. It’s recent, but it’s still an album I’d return to, which I don’t do often unless I need to learn a song for tour.
This article is from FILTER Issue 51