By Mark Guarino
Love is central in pop music. But death? It’s just as constant, but conspicuously so. Most love songs are a cheerful mask hiding deeper anxieties and fears — just listen to the catalog of Brian Wilson, for starters.
Or, in the alternative rock world, Mark Oliver Everett. Calling himself E, the leader of the ever-shifting collective known as Eels, Everett has made profound and eccentric pop music his calling card. In 1996, after scoring a number one hit on his third album, “Beautiful Freak,” Everett got hit with personal tragedy. His mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and his sister committed suicide. His father died in 1982. All of the sudden, his entire family vanished.
His response, two years later, was “Electro-Shock Blues,” and two years after that, “Daisies of the Galaxy,” two albums that reflected both the loud anguish and quiet fragility of emotional duress. The fuzzed-out blues, catchy grooves, clever use of samples, looped beats and Everett’s scratchy vocals matched Beck’s patchwork pop but were more emotionally grounded. His pessimism and dark humor on songs like “Cancer for the Cure” were always accompanied by songs like “I Like Birds,” which were funny but at the same time simple and meditative. For the first time, the irony-drenched alternative rock crowd had a songwriter whose tragic humor was not a hipster put-on.
“I am a child of our times and I do have a weakness for irony, so it can be hard. Some people might not be sure how to take a song. Like, ‘is this from the heart or are you (expletive) with us?’” he said last week. “More often than not it’s from the heart.”
The two albums almost didn’t come about. “I didn’t consider that I would write about the tragedies in my life because they seemed too personal and would end up too maudlin and why put that out there? The reason I did was because if I decided to treat it differently, it could actually serve a purpose in the world and could maybe shed some light. I feel really lucky. I don’t know how I would have gotten through that period without it,” he said.
His newest album, “Souljacker” (Dreamworks), was actually written during “Electro-Shock Blues,” but was postponed so he could work on the more acoustic-oriented “Daisies.” “For my own sanity, I just needed to go somewhere that was lighter and airier and more acoustic instrumentally,” he said.
Which hardly describes the new album. Sinister blues riffing, distorted vocals and tribal beats are the sound of soulful despair for his world of outcasts. But inside all that apocalyptic chaos is a mad grab for hope. The warm, program-heavy “Friendly Ghost” searches for spiritual guidance (“if you’re scared to die/you better not be scared to live,” he sings) and “Souljacker part II” — the answer to the title cut — is a slim hymn to his own demons (“he can hang my neck from the old flagpole/but the souljacker can’t get my soul”).
Past configurations of Eels included T-Bone Burnett, Grant Lee Phillips, Peter Buck, Jon Brion, and the current line-up features John Parish, known for his collaborations with P.J. Harvey and Sparklehorse. After getting the seeds for the songs during a meditative retreat he went on for ten days where he wasn’t allowed to read or write anything (he scribbled notes on toilet paper instead), Everett recorded the album in his basement studio in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A., as well as Parish’s studio in Bristol, England.
The more remarkable story is that he has a career at all, given that most major labels don’t have the patience any more for developing artists that don’t play directly to the charts. A way to get exposure, most niche artists (Apples in Stereo, Moby) have agreed to sell the songs to commercials. Except for Eels, there’s just one problem: Everett always says no.
“There are a lot of daily battles that have to be fought and I don’t enjoy that part at all. We have many requests to use the songs in commercials and that has been a long-term source of angst for the business people that we don’t do any of them. I understand their point of view which is ‘how will people find out about this band, if you put this song in a Volkswagen ad, they’re going to know.’ I understand that, but think it’s important to be on the outside of that as much as possible,” he said.
To further raise his label’s ire, Everett says he’s strived to turn away fans who only know him from his few hits including “Novocaine for the Soul” six years ago.
“I think I may be the only artist that has been actively tearing down his audience all these years,” he laughed. “The bad thing about having a hit record is having all these frat boys come to your concerts and you spend the next four or five years trying to weed them out by not playing (the hit) or playing versions of it they’ll hate. I wouldn’t mind having a hit record to get the record company off my back so I can continue to do what I want to do, but other than that, the only fun thing about it is not playing it at your concerts.”