Review Summary: Uncomfortably essential.
Last year’s ramshackle Wonderful, Glorious
, an Eels album that continued the relatively optimistic tone of the third of his late ‘00s concept trilogy in Tomorrow Morning
, was, for Mark Oliver Everett, an unusually off-the-cuff release. It’s only a little surprising, then, that his eleventh studio album returns to the ruthlessly confessional style that Everett’s millennial output has largely been characterized by. Where Wonderful, Glorious
avoided the problem of diminishing returns that has occasionally afflicted Everett’s recent career by being, well, sort of happy, the accurately named The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett
takes the opposite tack. Cautionary Tales
finds a quiet middle ground between the sort of vague worry that characterized Beck’s Morning Phase
and the hyper-specific, crushing realism of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji
, essentially treading the same paths that Eels have been plodding for decades. Yet Cautionary Tales
turns its light more relentlessly inward than Everett has since Blinking Lights and Other Revelations
, producing a viciously personal record that belies its warm arrangements. Everett wants you to know it, too; Cautionary Tales
is both the first Eels album to feature its songwriter's full name as well as his relatively unobscured visage on the cover.
Those familiar with Everett’s own history will have no trouble deciphering the straightforward Cautionary Tales
. “Parallels,” with its talk of quantum mechanics and other worlds, is a heartbreaking ode to his famous physicist father and one of Eels’ best songs to date, sporting the kind of tender, deceptively catchy melody that Everett seemingly tosses off in his sleep. What prevents these bare-bones arrangements from turning into another soul-deadening catalog of Everett’s blues in the pursuit of women (“Agatha Chang,” “Kindred Spirit”) or general despair and doom in regards to relationships and family (“Lockdown Hurricane,” Dead Reckoning”), is Everett’s masterful use of a limited palette. The creepy children’s music box contrasting with the venom in Everett’s words on “A Series of Misunderstandings,” or the drum cameo that provides the emotional bounce to the optimistic “Mistakes of My Youth” – Everett’s touches are light and flexible, soft brushstrokes instead of busy watercolors.
As a portrait of middle age – Everett turned 50 during its recording – Cautionary Tales
is refreshingly honest. Despite its often grim subject matter, it’s impossible to ignore the reflective sequence of “Mistakes of My Youth” and “Where I’m Going” that close the record. “I’ve got a good feeling / about where I’m going,” Everett’s sandpaper vocals sing while a piano plinks out that gorgeous major-key melody and barely-there strings hum in the background. Everett’s seen a lot of sh
it, but the takeaway from Cautionary Tales
is never that life is overwhelming, that the sh
it will swallow you whole. That’s why Cautionary Tales
works best not as a portrait of Everett’s purely autobiographical travails, but of a snapshot of life in general, no matter where you are in it. Everett has always been a songwriter following hope in the midst of all of life’s terrible choices. Cautionary Tales
, ending with the simple platitude to focus on the future, not the past, was never any different. In its simplicity lies a uniquely Eels beauty, realistic and wise. It may be unsure, yes, and there’s certainly some fresh horror around the bend, somewhere, but perhaps that future is more promising than what came before.