Thursday, January 28, 2010

The many sides of loneliness and loss - Eels 'End Times'

Most of us know how music can tug at the heart-strings when, at the tragic end of romantic films or operas or musicals, little snatches of happy themes return, slower, darker, reminding us of what once was, but is now gone, as we reach for the tissues. But perhaps even more poignant is the way music can tell us, even at the beginning when everything is happy and good, that it is all doomed to sadness, like the way the lovers are entwined in bed at the beginning of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and we know, even before they do, that it will end unhappily.

This is how Eels' newly released End Times begins, with its simple opening song about happy love in happy times, 'The Beginning', but where the sad, minor key strumming on the acoustic guitar makes it clear that what we are hearing is not a celebration, but a memory.

Eels is, in fact, essentially Michael Oliver Everett, who generally prefers to be known only as E and who, with a little help from friends playing drums and horns and a bass guitar here and there, but who does all the rest - the vocals, the guitars, the harmonica, the banjo, the harmonium, a hammond organ, and countless other things - himself, becomes Eels.

End Times tells the story that music has been telling for as long as there has been music and for as long as people have fallen out of love: fourteen songs of loss and loneliness and the journey that all of us go through when we experience them.

There's the grim determination to survive in the solid rockabilly of 'Gone Man'; the wistful memories of youth, when loss seemed easier to bear, in 'In my younger days', where soft, electronic howls cry out in the distance, haunting and lonely; the tender sadness and regret of 'A line in the dirt'; the inconsolable emptiness of the album's title song, with its sobbing little guitar phrases, repeated over and over like a dirge; the bitter regret and recriminations of the superb bluesy rock of 'Paradise Blues'; the attempt to accept aloneness with quiet resignation in 'Nowadays', but where the sad phrases of a cello, and the heartache of a harmonica, tell you that the line between being alone and being lonely is a narrow, narrow line indeed; the self-aware pathos of 'Little Bird', where thin, bare music reflects a tired, frail heart, crying out to be mended.

It's these subtle uses of music's tools that make Eels so good at his trade - little twists and turns that belie the simplicity of much of the music and turn it instead into a profound and revealing glimpse into the experience of loss.

End Times is not a happy album and, even when it balances the sadness of the opening track's memory of happy love with a quiet belief in survival in the closing 'On my feet', again with a simply strummed acoustic guitar, now in the major key, even then we feel the music's poignacy much, much more than its optimism. But it's not music that wallows in itself - it tells a sad story not to make you cry but simply because it is sad. Not that that will stop you shedding a tear or two, by any means.

Thanks to Greg for introducing me to Eels with the earlier, and superb, tribute desire of Hombre Lobo - another great album. See if you can buy the two together and get a discount.

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