25 Years of Mr. E's Beautiful Blues
Life-changing experiences erode innocence. Notwithstanding the scars from an ill-fated life, Mark Oliver Everett aka. E found a way to patten his music on a yin-and-yang model that gives equal importance to experience and innocence.
Over the course of his career, he has utilized personal tragedy to his advantage instead of wallowing in the darkness that was imposed on him from a young age. By placing all things negative as the starting point of his creative process, Everett works his way backwards into a poetically refined state of childlike purity. By thirty-five, he was the only surviving member of his family. Father, mother and sister — heart failure, lung cancer and suicide, respectively. This birthed a catalogue of warmhearted fairy-tale rock seasoned with age-neutral life lessons.
Even though Everett formed the Eels in the early 90s, the dominant motifs of the time like angst and depression never took the wheel in his artistic wayfinding. For him, they were stepping stones toward redemption.
Eels hold a special place in the hearts of many Gen-Z kids, including those who weren't fully invested in independent and alternative rock while growing up. It shouldn't take much to refresh your memory — think back to Shrek and Fiona starting to grow fond of each other as they make their way through the forest. A distorted guitar line politely strolls along: "My beloved monster and me/ We go everywhere together." She spots a cobweb between two branches and uses it to catch the flies that have Shrek on his toes, presenting him with a stick of ogre-friendly cotton candy, grey and sticky with insects. They proceed to walk hand, two outcasts in love — "She will always be the only thing/ That comes between me and the awful sting/ That comes from living in a world that's so damn mean."
Prizing imperfection has always been Everett's greatest asset. In the Eels' 1996 debut album, "Beautiful Freak," he took a cheeky oxymoron and added a whimsical glow to it. He explores finding contentment in his companion, who, much like himself, is a social pariah. Mood swings, unpredictable chord progressions and witty self-inquisition — it's difficult to settle on a particular feeling while listening to an Eels record. It's a calculated mess.
Everett isn't a greatest hits composer. That's not to say his songs aren't worthy of commercial popularity; they just don't work as well when isolated from their assigned collections. The payback is an intimate relationship with a broken man whose (light at the end of the) tunnel vision is far more rewarding than trauma bonding. Everett doesn't force resolution, though he keeps his eyes fixed on it. This is why downhearted themes from his freshman album that he seemed to have grown past in subsequent releases pop back up years later.
"Well I decided one day long ago/ I was never gonna be the greatest catch," Everett sings on "Ugly Love," released a decade after the first Eels album. Over the years, he has pushed the reset button on multiple occasions, but with the same optimism each time. The temporary nature of things high and low plays a huge role in the timelessness of his songwriting.
A lot of Everett's lyrical content can be depressing but his overall sound remains uplifting — a cohesion of experience and innocence. He doesn't let his inadequacies weigh down his sonic exploration. On the softer side, his expressions of loneliness and anxiety float over elevating instrumental arrangements, while his harder, rock-oriented pieces are fuzzy and raggedy. But none of these styles are ever in one place. Even though some of the Eels records have a theme, they're rarely restricted to a single approach.
The spark of juvenescence within Everett keeps his music from becoming exhaustingly miserable. His experiences never fully clouded his buoyant perspective. His sister, Elizabeth, was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy regularly under psychiatric care when she decided to take her own life. This, along with the passing of their mother two years later, resulted in what is perhaps Eels' best known album to date, "Electro-shock Blues" (1998). These losses set a tone for the rest of his career as they continue to inspire his writing even today. After working through the pain in a deceivingly cheerful sounding album, he stopped being as serious in the years to come. On the following record, he alludes to his sister's wish to have her ashes thrown out with the trash as requested in her suicide note.
A devil of a time awaits you When the party is over You're on your own Trash truck coming up the road Picking up the trash Riding to a better place –"Wooden Nickels" (Daisies of the Galaxy, 2000)
E's father, Hugh Everett III, was a physicist and devout atheist who first proposed the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Because he believed in immortality by means of rebirth in different realities, he had asked for his ashes to be taken out with the trash upon his death. Hoping to be reunited with her father, Elizabeth made the same request more than a decade after 19-year-old Everett discovered the motionless body of their father. Atypical though it may have been, he found comfort in fulfilling the parting wishes of his sister. The devil's mention in "Wooden Nickels" is amusing but not insensitive since it brings relief to an otherwise sad reference. His sense of humour saves him in instances like these.
Everett takes himself seriously even when he's being silly. There's a huge difference between a talented songwriter and a talented lyricist — Everett is both. He writes to distance himself from the things that went wrong in his life, so he's never wasteful with his compositions. He is great at spelling out things that most people already somewhat know about themselves but never get around to articulating. There's nothing cryptic about the words, "You see I never thought enough of myself/ To realize/ That losing me could mean something." Having attended a few too many funerals so early in his life, he says what more people need to hear. But this is the same person whose lyrical climax for a song was "I like birds."
Mark Oliver Everett's proclivity for things offbeat has a charming effect. His straight-faced pride in weakness is a refreshing alternative to moping self-pity. It's tough to criticize a rock musician who isn't obsessed with being a rockstar.