For even the most successful musicians, years of unceasing touring and coming up with new music that meets (or raises) the bar exacts a toll on both body and psyche. Creativity is rarely easy, and when early acclaim leads to higher expectations, burnout can follow. Such was the case with Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett, or, as he’s generally known, simply E. After more than a dozen albums, initially under his own handle and later under the banner of Eels, he decided more or less to drop out after his quiet and reflective 2014 album, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett.
It was a risky move in a fickle business where constant visibility matters most. But he had turned 50 in 2013 and realized that he’d already spent half his life working on this one musical project. “I needed to do things like normal people do—take vacations and so forth,” he said recently. “Especially after 25 years of intense work and focus. But I guess I’m not a normal person and it never occurred to me that I could be. So once the last tour was done, I just set out to do anything other than what I usually do.”
“I try to reflect life and the experiences it offers. All of life’s shades and colors. It’s not always pleasant, but in this case I was trying to get to a more pleasant place.”
Everett strongly considered retirement, one reason why fans ought to be grateful that a new Eels record, The Deconstruction, has finally emerged this month. On the title track, he sings, “The deconstruction has begun, time for me to fall apart / The reconstruction will begin only when there’s nothing left.” The album’s cover art depicts a match lighting an ornate flame over the band’s logo. What follows, then, is the reconstruction. The songs were written piecemeal and at intermittent intervals in that four-year span—during which time Everett married, became a father for the first time at age 54, and divorced—and they’re a supremely satisfying reflection of Everett’s ingenuity and craft. Like most Eels albums, atmospheric ambiance and lush instrumentation imbue The Deconstruction with emotional twists and turns. But it’s melodic to a fault, a sublime combination of ambiance and ingenuity.
The weighty title notwithstanding, Everett seems to have emerged from his hiatus rested and refreshed, if stung by the loss of love. Several songs, like “Premonition” and “Sweet Scorched Earth,” focus on reflection and fond memories. Others, like “Bone Dry,” reveal a darker frame of mind: “Bone dry, you drank all the blood / My heart is bone dry / Can’t give you more ‘cause you took all of it.”
“I try to reflect life and the experiences it offers,” Everett explains. “All of life’s shades and colors. It’s not always pleasant, but in this case I was trying to get to a more pleasant place.”
Part of the wear and tear of the Eels project, which dates back to 1996’s Beautiful Freak, is that many people assume that it’s a one-man band, one all under Everett’s aegis. Indeed, early highpoints like 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues were packed with painfully personal songs about family, loss and grief. As Everett admits, being the sole constant member of Eels from the start has added additional pressures and responsibilities. “It makes you feel very vulnerable, because a lot of the material is very personally based,” he says. “But there are a lot of other things that come with it too. If the band members feel like something goes wrong, nobody blames them for bad reviews. It’s my name that’s getting dragged through the mud. I want to say for the record that when something goes wrong it does give the other guys reason to share in the blame, By the way, please write that down.”
Not surprisingly then, Everett allows that there have been times when he’s wished he could sit in the back and let someone else drive. For a taste of that, he appeared on five episodes of the HBO series Love, playing a pretentious musician named Brian. But he’s never quite pulled it off in his musical life. “I always have this fantasy of what it would be like to be what the other guys in the band refer to as “side meat’—to not be the leader, but just to be a part of someone else’s group,” he says. “But obviously this is the situation I find myself in. It’s the result of doing this for so long. Still, it’s a fantasy of mine. What a vacation that would be.”
For now, there are no vacations in sight. With a new album to promote, Everett is headed back on the road and into a routine he shed four years ago. Eels will tour worldwide this summer, with a North American headline run kicking off May 28 in Pomona, Calif. “The whole grind is going to happen,” he shrugs. “I’m a little terrified, to be honest. I’ve never gone four years between tours. But I’m also excited. I remember how much fun it is, too. The fans haven’t seen us in awhile. I just hope that some of them are still alive.”