The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett isn’t necessarily an album that heralds the return of ‘classic Eels‘, even if all the signs are present and correct. Eels has always subtly changed direction with every release, though the last five years of Everett’s career has particularly emphasised this.
He’s been on lusty, loved-up form with 2009’s Hombre Lobo, 2010’s Tomorrow Morning was joyous and buoyant (proving to be the counterpoint to End Times, which came out seven months prior) and last year’s patchy Wonderful, Glorious was filled with punchy hooks and immediacy. It’s possible to curate a very good ‘greatest hits’ collection from his most recent output to rival his supposed heyday in the late ’90s/early ’00s.
So, after a relatively lengthy period in the sun, the 11th Eels LP finds Everett boldly stripping back, dispensing of the jaunty and lively elements of his style and instead keeping things minimal. There are string arrangements aplenty, but they seem a little restrained, so that they don’t overshadow the stories that are being told. Tracks like Parallels and Gentlemen’s Choice are so sparse in musical accompaniment that it places the emphasis firmly on the man who adorns the cover art and on the craft that’s served him well over nearly two decades. In that regard, there are some similarities between The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett and his sweeping triumph Blinking Lights And Other Revelations, though it often presents itself as a far more intimate creature.
It’s a craft that continues to provide plenty of charming ditties that are economical and don’t outstay their welcome. Only a handful of songs are truly uptempo, such as the delightful shuffle of Where I’m From, but for the most part these tracks are more than happy to progress at a slow pace. The way that the sublime Lockdown Hurricane carefully builds is masterful whilst Dead Reckoning is the sole moment where a slightly sinister atmosphere takes hold.
Lyrically, Everett continues to be contemplative and direct – looking to the past in order to proceed onwards as he awkwardly goes through middle age. He asks himself “How could I have been so blind and cruel?” when reminiscing about Agatha Chang and the refrain of Answers shows that he still hasn’t figured everything out (“I thought I’d have some answers by now”). The gently soaring Mistakes Of My Youth sums it up: “I can’t keep defeating myself/I can’t keep repeating, the mistakes of my youth.”
It’s all reliable and competent, but it’s not exactly new for Eels. The back catalogue is littered with many more effective songs (see Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor, Things The Grandchildren Should Know and practically all of End Times) and, whilst these newer confessions are no less accessible or raw, they don’t nudge the heartstrings in the same way as his very best work can. Even songs like Series Of Misunderstandings and Kindred Spirit feel like retreads, and as they’re slap bang in the middle of the album, it makes for a small lull.
The central theme of Everett’s recent material has been that life is plagued with uncertainty and unknowing, yet the hunch that something good is around the corner is the motivation that one needs to live life fully. Though this is a flawed collection, The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett still partially succeeds in getting the message across perfectly in an accessible and honest manner.