The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett would be a great title for an Eels box set that illustrates the uncomfortably direct, often profound way that its leader, the titular Everett, has sung about death, regret, and the general piss and shit of everyday life since the mid 1990s. Alas, it’s the name of the band’s 11th studio album, a roughshod batch of breakup songs too fragile to support the conceptual weight of its title.
Like everything Everett creates, Cautionary Tales sounds honest, and has more than a few moments of stark, innocent beauty. But for whatever reason, these somber folk tunes are missing that singular Eels perspective: a mix of black humor and disdain for bullshit that always leavened their lyrics’ despair. They bludgeon us with unrelenting, uninteresting sad-sack narration. The only “cautionary tale” to speak of here is “Don’t break up with somebody you love,” and by Eels standards, that’s unforgivably regular.
Musically, the group is in better shape, showcasing the kind of autumnal grace they can still wring out of the formula of gentle strumming mixed with vintage keyboards and the occasional glockenspiel established almost a decade ago on Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. The thematic bookends “Where I’m At” and “Where I’m Going” pair gorgeous brass and woodwind arrangements with Everett’s lonesome piano chords, lending real heft to the latter’s welcome injection of hopefulness. They alone make the album worth a spin, but can’t truly make you forget the weaknesses, like the lazy clichés Everett resorts to on “Gentleman’s Choice”: “Slept in all day in dirty sheets/Stain on my shirt been there for weeks.”
Cautionary Tales is underwhelming, but it’s also a victim of context. Last year’s Wonderful, Glorious found Everett playing looser and louder than he had in years, while shyly considering that he might have found a modicum of happiness in this world. For all its unevenness, listening to that album made being an Eels fan mean just a little bit more; all those years of sublimely crafted wallows suddenly felt like they had more of a purpose. “I keep defeating my own self/And keep repeating yesterday,” Everett bemoans on the new album’s penultimate track, “Mistakes of My Youth.” If you take it as a critique of his own work, it’s typical Everett: direct, personal, and bitingly accurate.