Mark Everett is the closest thing Generation X had to a Neil Young: a versatile, prolific and consistent songwriter too often overshadowed by his peers (in this case, Radiohead, Built to Spill, and the Flaming Lips) because of the lack of a true classic album. Despite the fact that 2009’s Hombre Lobo was one of the best, most complete Eels records to date, the band suffered from not releasing its OK Computer/Soft Bulletin equivalent at a time when critics still cared about continuing Kurt Cobain’s legacy.
Perhaps that apathy was produced by a rare extended stretch without a new Eels album. End Times, a milder, softer, but no less beautiful or poignant pop album than Hombre Loco, should help Everett start to get the respect of the under-30 set. A return to the band’s more intimate pop songwriting, End Times is not to be confused with “lo-fi,” “indie pop” or any other label that doesn’t apply to veteran recording artists. It’s classic confessional pop, in the vein of Plastic Ono Band or Blood on the Tracks, but with the perspective of an aging generation that didn’t realize until too late that age was supposed to bring wisdom and maturity.
End Times requires a longer attention span than do most albums of this breed by younger bands — for all the talk of Sam Beam’s “quietness,” Iron and Wine features a lot more attention-grabbing production values. There’s little here beyond an acoustic guitar and Everett’s strained vocals, but my oh my, do those vocals have something to say.
The album rewards those who listen with songs that are confessional but also insightful. The placid folkie once featured on Beautiful Freak is now pushing 50, desperately trying to find some strains in himself — and his generation — of traditional adulthood. The two “hard rocking” songs on the album are anything but: “Gone Man” lauds the values of being a loner and ignoring all that sex-and-drugs hoopla. “Unhinged” is about as hinged as an album’s harder songs can get, sounding like Everett’s body has atrophied in an attempt to ratchet up the energy he once had on Souljacker and Electroshock Blues.
“I Need a Mother” is a frank, bitter, unsparing look at the failed relationships in his life: The fallout of a 46-year-old man-child should be a warning to those who think Judd Apatow movies depict a lifestyle to emulate. Meanwhile, “Little Bird,” which deservedly made some best-of-2009 lists upon its November release, is just about the most depleted breakup song you’ll ever hear, about as frail as the metaphorical bird in question.
No doubt some will find the bleakness of a late-’90s great too depressing to contemplate, much less one lamenting the emptiness of “Mansions of Los Feliz.” But it is rare to see musicians bare their souls in a way that also has something to say about larger social themes. Only a handful of albums have ever done so. The music world is too fractured now to have an album resonate quite like Blood on the Tracks did in 1975. For those who were loud and brash in the ’90s, however, this is as close as they’re going to get.