With the end of the world looming just two short years away in 2012, it seems fitting that Eels’ Mark Everett would offer his prescient insight into the collective apocalyptic consciousness on his latest opus, End Times. Only six months removed from Hombre Lobo, his lycanthrope-themed exploration of the nature of human desire, it can be argued that his latest is as natural a progression as any of Everett’s work. After all, his choice in album topics has always alternated between the absurd and the melancholy. And considering the recent concept album and, before that, his significant contribution to the Yes Man soundtrack, it was time for some despondent balladry.
This time out, however, Everett isn’t just sad, he’s completely cheerless, his final days of reckoning (according to him) beginning with his 2005 divorce. On the title track, he sings, “I can hear it loud and clear/ The world is ending and what do I care?/ She’s gone and nowhere near/ End times are here.” Where 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues grieved for a lost mother and sister, this album’s backward glance at Everett’s ruined nuptials proves to be even more pessimistic. The lyrics, while not always self-referential, describe a lonely, often bitter protagonist whose ever darker world view is poisoning his daily existence, rarely offering any semblance of hope to counter the effect.
In the short spoken piece “Apple Trees,” Everett bemoans the sense of feeling small in the broader context of society. He complains of being one of a billion trees, metaphorically lamenting the feeling of anonymity in a world of multitudes. It’s reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s soft-spoken poetic style and brooding delivery. However, bookended between many descriptions of how Everett’s life has not rebounded in the four years since his marriage ended, the effect is lost for lack of contrast. Indeed, that may summarize the entire album. Recorded so closely to Hombre Lobo, the two feel like companion pieces; but where the former featured rowdy barn-burners like “What’s a Fella Gotta Do” and “Tremendous Dynamite,” End Times only repeats its themes of loneliness and despair over and again for 14 tracks.
Still, there’s something about the image of Everett facing it all alone that works, and works well. When he grumbles on “Mansions of Los Feliz” that “It’s just me, myself and the secrets that live within the walls,” it feels like a declaration of independence shouted at the very solitude that haunts him. Later, on album closer “On My Feet,” when he confesses, “I pushed the bed against the window today/ So there would only be one side/ Well it’s a little less lonely that way/ But I’m still dying inside,” it does appear that he’s beginning the graduation from miserable self-pity to resigned action. The fact that we were concerned illustrates just how well Everett’s told his tale.
Over the course of 12 albums, Everett has learned that, often, less really is more; on End Times, the carefully crafted acoustic passages and mournful timber of a few limited chords supporting each verse help to convey the sense of desolation throughout. It’s a less calculated version of minimalism that suits the hollow mood. Musically, End Times approaches Everett’s best work yet, but due to its narrow focus and exhausting reliance on theme, it falls just short of it.