There’s an inherent soft-focus to Mark Everett’s worldview. His jagged details scrape your flesh to the bone, but his bitterness or rancor is tempered with a romanticism that makes listeners ache more than rage. This postmodern sensitive—landing somewhere between Tom Waits’ raspy reality and Jackson Browne’s tenderness—walks a line between desire and doom with dignity and just the slightest bit of slump-shouldered resignation.
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett understands the grace of understatement. With spare tracks—the almost toy-sounding keyboard under his voice on the faltering “Lockdown Hurricane” is only leavened with minor key strings and a bit of muted high hat to establish the desolation before going wide open—there’s room for the emotions to do the heavy lifting. As always with an Eels record, the song cycle moves through the emotions with a broad sweep and utter tumble.
In some ways, even more honest, more real, more true, Cautionary Tales was drawn from the loss of someone loved—by his choice—and the growing regret for the decision. As anyone who’s ever loved, fought, been seized by the moments, the only thing more engulfing is the deadening quiet that follows what’s broken.
And so a song cycle emerged. Littered with details and stumbles, wanting and realizing (from the gentle awe of one’s beloved that marks “Sparrow In The Sun”) moves the cavern of lament that emerges as one sifts through what truly happened (“Series of Misunderstandings”).
There is no self-pity here. After whatever blame he levels at the woman now gone, “Gentleman’s Choice”—gruffly considered over tentatively sought piano notes before a drift of cello, viola, violins pools beneath—paints a stark portrait of how lives erode, indulgence leads to destruction and loneliness is the inevitable abyss.
To call Mark Everett the sweetheart Holden Caulfield is too easy. And yet, the burgeoning self-awareness his music contains, along with melodies as sweet as the best of Paul Westerberg, suggests that very Catcher In The Ryeness: knowing more than he should, but somehow trying to find a glimmer of innocence or wonder.
Taking responsibility is the first step. Whether lost and gone or seeking absolution for self, Cautionary Tales resolves with the accountability of “Mistakes Of My Youth,” then the reasonable resolve of knowing one must push on, “Where I’m Going.”
Is there a happy ending? As the horns wheeze and the piano moves from chords to rolls of single notes, all delivered at almost funereal pace, one can only hope for the artist known as Mark Oliver Everett.