Posted May 18th, 2010 (2:53 am) by John-Ross Boyce

Do they still have Charm Schools? Where matronly women with Edwardian values and sensibilities teach young girls how to cross their legs properly and balance books on their heads? If they do, I'd like to see a specific new concept introduced into the curriculum: When socializing keeps your personal tragedies to yourself. I'm not saying bottle your deep dark secrets inside and let them fester in your soul. But don't allude to ultra-tragic events in your life, or casually talk about them outright when you're at a party, ice cream social, friend's wedding, Red Robin on a second date, or pretty much anywhere that isn't a therapists office or a quiet parked car after the events of the evening have come to a close. Not before, because listening to someone describe their ultimate life tragedy and then trying to have a good time at a gallery opening or a Thermals concert makes you look a complete dick. Or, hell, start a band or write an Oprah's Book Club style memoir about whatever it is that's bothering you. Memoirs are huge right now.

But seriously, don't respond to, “You had a birthday last month, right?” with “Yeah, I thought about hanging myself at my party.” Don't throw details into a story such as “No, it was definitely in springtime. I remember, because it was right after the fourth time I was brutally raped, and that was on Mother's Day, so...” Your tragedies are horrible, life-altering things, and I'm sorry that they happened. However, $2 Whiskey Night at a crowded bar, or even a bar occupied by more than the two people, is not an appropriate place to relay that kind of info. Keep it light. Don't blindside people. It's just bad manners.

Mark Oliver Everett, the man behind Eels, is like that tragic girl at the party. He writes beautifully layered pop songs about nervous breakdowns, suicide attempts, suicide success stories, mental houses, self-medicating, solitude, heartache, and ennui. His greatest heart-string-yanker of a song might just be a piano and strings piece that lasts two minutes and fourteen seconds and is titled “It's A Motherfucker”. Oh, and it does it yank strings. For Everett, no material is too personal – 1998's Electro-Shock Blues proved that. However, there is one huge difference between Everett and that tragic girl – the former tells his stories in such a way that, no matter how cringe-inducing they may be, you still want to hear more.

Of course, not everything written by Everett succumbs to a tragic ending. This week’s focal track,” The Beginning,” is a sparse, ethereal opener to Eels' latest release, End Times. He writes about the hopeful commencement of a dying relationship, which the two still consider “beautiful and free,” rendering the implied tragedy even more tragic.

Listeners familiar with Springsteen's Nebraska will notice vast similarities. Like Nebraska, End Times was recorded on a four-track. Beyond production value, however, are haunting arpeggios of Everett's guitar, heavy reverb, and, honestly, the sudden baritone twang that suddenly purports to be Everett's vocals. Everett pretty much channels Springsteen on this album; it’s the Springsteen we like. For some of us die-hard cynics, hearing Eels attempt to recreate “Born to Run” might be the sonic equivalent of opening the Ark of the Covenant and taking a gander inside.

For a celebrated multi-instrumentalist like Everett, a guitar and vocals only track might seem like a counter-intuitive move. However, given the implicit heartache of the song's lyrics, such arrangement only amplifies the feeling of crushing loneliness and regret which permeates the track. Ditto the reverb, which makes Everett sound less simply “alone” and more “alone in a newly empty room that once housed his exes furniture and pictures” It bounces around in a loose echo, as if this room is suddenly very large. In his delivery, Everett sounds raspier than usual and utterly crippled by despair as he reminisces of what was perhaps a first night spent with a now lost love. His assertion on the chorus that everything was once beautiful in the beginning, does not sting like lemon juice in a paper cut – rather it throbs like an ubiquitous dull pain that radiates through the body with no sign of dwindling. In other words, like the pain of being newly and violently alone.

As far as Eels records go, End Times is good, but it is no Electro-Shock Blues. Recording on four-track no doubt leaves less room for the no-holds-barred layering of arrangements that has marked Eels' previous efforts. Nonetheless, Everett manages to deliver a biting, emotional performance, and in some ways, End Times leaves more room for Everett himself. Maybe he's also been vocally comparable to Springsteen and this new record, specifically “The Beginning”, is just the first time we could hear it. What is certain is that End Times's lesser quality in the face of past Eels releases does not mar “The Beginning’s” quality as a song. It's ethereal beauty and Raymond Carver-esque lyrics render it a memorable song, full of quiet, yet crushing import. It may in fact be Everett's best opener since “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor” - even if the rest of the album doesn't quite measure up to “Climbing to the Moon”.

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