Released just over twelve months after the well-received Wonderful, Glorious, Eels’ latest offering has one of those album titles that gives fair-warning about what exactly to expect from its content. E has straight out said that The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is an album about his own failures in relationships, so anyone expecting an album full of upbeat tunes may be in for some disappointment…
Where I’m At
From the opening moments of this instrumental opener The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is obviously going to be one of Eels more reflective albums. Settle in, there’s inevitably going to be some painful self-analysis on display here…
If “Where I’m At” gives notice that this album is going to be one of Eels’ more downbeat offerings, this second track confirms it. All strummed acoustic guitars, gently tapped percussion and a bit of background wash of synth. Lyrically, it’s actually more optimistic than you’d expect, but still very much in E’s comfort zone.
It starts with what sounds for all the world like a bit note picking on a fender rhodes and a down-but-not-out vocal by E. This is one of those songs where he starts picking at the scabs that develop in any slowly failing romantic relationship. The sound starts to flesh out a little with the slow addition of strings, then the drums and bass, gradually building to a crescendo which never actually arrives. This is a good thing, as it would be a cheap and obvious move, instead the tune just sort of ends up in a holding pattern until it fizzles out, just like the majority of those failing relationships.
E regrets splitting up with a girl. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t result in a cracking little song.
Chances are the majority of us will retrospectively feel rotten about how we have ended a relationship at some point, and E is one of the very best songwriters at balancing the regret and acceptance that we must all try and achieve in those situations.
A Swallow in the Sun
For the first time on The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett an electric guitar makes its presence felt as the intro to “A Swallow in the Sun”. It’s a song that offers a little levity after four moody and heavy-hearted tunes. That’s not to say it’s upbeat, indeed it remains a slow-burner, but there’s a tone of optimism for the first time on the album. Maybe it’s a little jarring, but not everyone wants an album of self-pitying naval-gazing (personally I’m quite partial to that sort of thing though).
Where I’m From
If “A Swallow in the Sun” indicated marked a change in tone on the album, “Where I’m From” picks up the more optimistic tone and runs with it. Maybe it’s the irresistible shuffle beat, but this is just one of those songs where I can’t help but raise a smile every time I hear it.
Series of Misunderstandings
The title of this song alone should indicate that optimism is put aside for the duration of its length. This is the time for ice picked key-board lines, plucked strings and E attempting the sort of falsetto that forces a feeling of isolation and insecurity. It’s a masterful change of pace and it’s placement after the album’s most upbeat number only accentuates its feeling of despair. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone for the double-tracked vocals myself, as a single lost voice would have worked better, but the mournful cello from two thirds of the way through is a masterstroke.
This is the point where the restless schizophrenia of this album really starts to show, as we once again switch from isolated despair to something more positive and hopeful. Perhaps this is one of those situations where the tracks should have been re-ordered, but when you consider that this is an album about relationships, it’s perhaps fitting that there are some moments where the album doesn’t run as smoothly as the listener would like, as at least it’s accurately reflecting its subject matter.
Okay, we’re back on track and we’re stripped back to just E’s cracked vocal and a piano line. The strings come in and the song morphs into something which starts to sound like some sort of coda to a low-key stage musical.
The feeling of a stage musical is once again present as E’s treated vocal intones over some deeply depressing woodwind and a rolling timpani. Eels have never captured the feeling of foreboding menace better.
A bit more light after the darkness. This is a breath of fresh air after a few minutes in a rather close and claustrophobic environment. The sound of a man who has spent far too long brooding over a failed relationship and resolves himself a damn good talking to.
Mistakes of my Youth
The album’s most upbeat number is another where E stops worrying and accepts the dumb-ass stuff he’s done time and time again in relationships and does his best to break the self-destructive cycle, simply because he’s not as young as he used to be.
On every Eels album there’s a song that reminds you why you love this band. “Mistakes of my Youth” is that song on The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett for me. It’s the sound of a man accepting what he’s done, who he is and doing every can to improve his lot in life.
It’s the damn good talking to promised by the previous track and among the best songs E has ever written.
Where I’m Going
The final song of an audio triptych which form the start, midpoint and end of The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett. “Where I’m Going” Finds E cautiously optimistic about the future, but knowing it isn’t the end of the world if he does repeat the mistakes of his past, as long as he is aware of them and learns from the experience.
It takes a while to realise it, but this final song is a re-arrangement of the instrumental introduction with vocals and pulls off the clever trick of making you want to listen to the whole album all over again. It pulls the loose strings of the album together right at the end, and suddenly the whole thing makes sense.
This is one of those albums where the whole album works as a single unified statement and very few of the songs work in isolation. Much like End Times and Tomorrow Morning, you get the impression that The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is very much an E solo album. This is in sharp contrast to the collaborative full band sound of Wonderful, Glorious released last year. This may not be an album of tunes that will automatically go down so well with fans of Eels more rocking material, but if you accept E’s tendency to meander between sweaty riff rocking and painful introspection from one album to the next, then this is yet another compelling listen from one of our finest contemporary songwriters.
The path that E follows is no one’s but his own and it’s up to the individual if we choose to follow him or not.