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The Eels Are Still Doing the Best They Can

On ‘The Deconstruction,’ the alt-rock veterans further master the fine art of turning tragedy into songs

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“I love the way your hair falls on your eyes,” sings Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett, the gravelly alt-rock veteran known professionally as E. “And the way the sun hits them as it dies.” Thus begins “Sweet Scorched Earth,” an almost unbearably gentle ballad on the Eels’ 12th album, The Deconstruction, released last week. Mellow electric guitar mingles with graceful strings; romantic idealism makes its peace with environmental fatalism. Love never dies, even if the planet does. “There’s poison in the water and the sky,” E sings. “We’ll hold on to each other if we fry.”

His attempt at climate-change optimism is that the line goes if we fry, not as we fry. “Yeah, I try not to get political in my songs,” E tells me, chatting on the phone in early April. “I don’t think it usually mixes well. But a song like that, it creeps in there. Because it’s just—things have gotten so crazy that it’s just gotten impossible to pretend it’s not happening.”

The Eels are MTV Buzz Bin veterans—“Novocaine for the Soul,” a shaggy jam from their 1996 debut Beautiful Freak, was a massive hit—who’ve avoided nostalgia pigeonholing in part because they’ve never run out of material. E, the band’s guiding light and sole constant, is a Virginia native and longtime Los Angeles fixture whose personal life has long mixed professional triumph with grave misfortune. The next and perhaps best Eels album, 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues, delved into both his sister’s suicide and his mother’s death from lung cancer with both a forthright directness and a disarming whimsy. “You’re dead, but the world keeps spinning,” goes the opening line to the angelically raucous “Last Stop: This Town,” whose video features E serenading a singing carrot. His best work, musical and otherwise, is deeply personal, and heartbreaking, and unmatched in its ability to turn outlandish tragedy into absurdist comedy.

Or perhaps you know his voice from 2001’s blockbuster kids’ movie Shrek, which prominently featured the Eels jam “My Beloved Monster” and made room for the band in various sequels. That the kids raised on Shrek are now mostly old enough to vote is just another fount of pitch-black comedy now. Meanwhile, for the last 20-plus years, the Eels have carried on mixing Tom Waits’s junkyard-beatnik anarchy with Randy Newman’s gorgeously blunt sardonicism. I used to sing 2000’s lovelorn piano ballad “It’s a Motherfucker” at campus coffeehouse open-mic nights, and it totally killed. (It totally killed only me, of course, but that was enough.)

The band’s lineup shifts constantly, and its discography has grown overwhelming—2005’s widely praised double-disc Blinking Lights and Other Revelations was followed by a trio of concept albums tackling such cheery themes as aging, insatiable desire, and inevitable decay—but E’s quest for serenity amid calamity is a constant. Spend time with any Eels record and you walk away thinking something like, That was beautiful, and I hope terrible things stop happening to this guy, so he doesn’t have to make any more albums like this. (I tell E this, and he replies, “Oh, thank you,” in perfect deadpan before I’ve even finished talking.)

Another way to put it is that in devoting his career to writing songs about making the best of terrible situations, E has spent his whole life unknowingly training himself to thrive in our current national climate. “Today Is the Day,” another highlight of The Deconstruction, is the sort of dust-yourself-off inspirational tune he specializes in, bolstered by a jaunty guitar riff and handclaps and flutes, with a motivational cheerfulness that’s delivered through gritted teeth but never feels forced:

Everything that I thought that I believed
Oh, baby, was all so clear to me
But now I know that I was wrong
It’s gone, it’s gone gone gone
It’s alright now

“Life’s tough for everybody,” is the way E summarizes this philosophy now. “But everybody’s doing the best they can. Everybody’s doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.”

What E has been given, in terms of his personal life and family history, has taken a great deal of time and a wide variety of approaches to fully explain. In 2008, he published an autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, which opens with the story of the time he was 19 years old and found his father, the brilliant scientist Hugh Everett III, dead in his bedroom of a heart attack. “I tried to learn CPR from the 911 operator on the phone, carrying my father’s already-stiff body across the bedroom floor,” he writes. “It was weird touching him. That was the first time we had any physical contact that I could remember, other than the occasional cigarette burn on my arm while squeezing by him in the hallway.”

The book delves just as deeply into the deaths of his mother and his sister amid less harrowing tales of his early musical adventures and various young, awkward love affairs. “My first feeling when someone tells me they read the book is of embarrassment,” E tells me. “Because I realize, Oh my god, all the stuff I said in the book, they know.” A song, at least, allows you to dress up such ultra-personal revelations with spy-novel surf guitars, or rickety drum machines, or celestial glockenspiels.

Hugh Everett III was a genius quantum mechanic whose theory of parallel universes puts him, for some scientists, in the same category as Einstein. This is discussed at length in the very moving 2007 BBC documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, in which E travels around talking to various physicists about his largely unexpressive father’s theory while plumbing those same psychological depths. “I guess it’s sad that the one really intimate experience I had with him was while he was dead,” E tells the camera, not quite sardonically, but with a hint of his determination to embrace the absurdity of it all.

“It’s a weird thing to have a film crew following you around for two weeks, just trying to make you cry,” is how E describes the documentary now. “But man, it was definitely one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, to get that opportunity to learn so much about my father, and ultimately it was just a really healing, great experience.”

E has never stopped working long enough for the Eels to capitalize on the cynical cycle of messy breakups and cash-grab reunions that has sustained most of his fellow alt-rock superheroes. It’s remarkable enough for him that his new record took four years to make, after an announced sabbatical fueled by “plain old exhaustion,” that didn’t last nearly as long as he’d expected. “I didn’t know if it was a sabbatical, or if it was forever,” he says. “I thought for awhile maybe I was just done. So it is a surprise to some degree: Here I am with an album.”

Though it addresses a relatively brief and far less calamity-driven period in E’s life, The Deconstruction still had plenty of source material, including a new marriage, the birth of his son, and a divorce. The mood shifts wildly: “Bone Dry” is wounded and angry (despite all the sha-la-la’s), while “There I Said It” is another gorgeous, heartrending piano ballad: “I love you / There, I said it.” One song, “Archie Goodnight,” is explicitly dedicated to his son, portending a rich vein of sweet heartache to come. “We’ll see how much dad rock I’m gonna churn out,” E says, adding that he doesn’t have much time for new music these days, given the degree to which children’s music has come to dominate his life. “We’re in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, so my baby only listens to vinyl.”

There is much to learn from this guy, even now, even if you haven’t encountered half the personal tragedy he’s wrestled with so publicly. “I don’t feel like I need any more drama in my life,” he allows. “I would rather have less drama and less songs.” The Deconstruction is lighter on personal drama if only by comparison, and released into one of the more dramatic and angst-ridden national moments in recent history. Life has given him all he can stand, but he survives in part by teaching the rest of us how to learn to stand it, too.