Break-up albums are often quite difficult to dissect, requiring the listener to either presume certain unknowable aspects of the relationship the artist is writing about, or to recall painful times in their own lives when they went through similar circumstances. Either way, those are rough roads to hoe, and with all of the emotions conjured up in the process, the music and songwriting found on the record frequently gets overshadowed by the vulnerable nature of the songs themselves. On End Times, the new album by Eels, the moody, sparse structure of the songs (written and recorded primarily in Mark Everett’s basement) only adds to the fragile, revealing sentiments expressed within the lyrics. Everett manages to capture essential, universal truths through simple, sincere statements where he is often more critical of himself than he is of the one who left. Like Blood On The Tracks (Bob Dylan) and Sea Change (Beck) before it, End Times is a heartbreaking journey to the depths of despair and melancholy, but it never sounds cloying or mawkish; instead it stands as an honest, revealing look at a broken-down man who, despite his intense pain, still has the strength to write poignant songs that serve as beacons of light amidst the darkness of his soul.
The album fittingly starts with ‘The Beginning,’ a glimpse into the early, worry-free days of the doomed relationship. It’s a nice, albeit foreboding, look at the romance before things go bad, and go bad it does on the bluesy stomp of ‘Gone Man,’ which kicks off with the lyrics: “She used to love me, but it’s over now. That was a good thing that’s gone, man, gone.” Musically, it’s as upbeat as the record gets, despite the fact that the song documents the weaknesses within the man that ultimately lead to the separation. And now that he’s been left alone, the truly heartbreaking songs begin, with the plaintive desperation of ‘In My Younger Days,’ ‘Mansions Of Los Feliz’ and ‘A Line In The Dirt’ all documenting the downfall of a man who “drew a line into the dirt, and dared her to step right across it. And she did.” The subtle majesty of the title track elaborates on the bleak themes of the album, correlating the relationship between the shards left of the subject’s life with the volatile world at large and the unpredictable nature of his surroundings. The anguish is evident in Everett’s last words: “I can hear it loud and clear, the world is ending, and what do I care? She’s gone. End times are here.” And who can argue with those sentiments, for it’s tough to think of the world repairing itself when you don’t even care enough to mend the mess you’ve made of your own life.
‘Paradise Blues’ is a rollicking track that compares a suicide bomber with the woman that destroyed his life, and even though it gives the middle of the album a much needed shot in the arm, it ultimately is a bit of a misstep that reaches for a connection that isn’t fully there. But the rest of the album is much more focused and affecting, never straying too far from Everett’s broken world. ‘Nowadays’ has a bit of a Dylan-like sound, especially on the harmonica laden coda, while the introspective ‘Unhinged’ provides a bit of a jolt to the record’s second half. ‘I Need A Mother’ is a nod to the tragic subject matter of the brilliant Electro-Shock Blues, and finds E searching for something, anything to help alleviate his pain. The somewhat optimistic album closer ‘On My Feet,’ hints that he’s at least ready to heal but hasn’t quite started yet. Here’s to hoping he finds his way out of the darkness.
Everett realizes that he’s not alone in his heartbreak, and that break-up songs and albums are nothing new (even for him), acknowledging as much on the short, spoken word piece “Apple Trees.” He conveys how he feels as he drives by a massive grove of trees, imagining that he is but one lonely tree amongst a grove of thousands, realizing that there’s nothing special about him or his situation that allows him to stand out from the rest. But he took those lonely, debilitating thoughts and turned them into an album packed with tender, exquisite moments, and these songs, ultimately, will see him (and anyone else who identifies with his misery) through the shadows and into the dawn of a new, restorative day.