It's been quite a journey for Mark Oliver Everett and the band he formed in California back in 1995. Eels became one of the first acts to sign to the Geffen/Spielberg backed venture Dreamworks Records and almost immediately enjoyed considerable success with their debut album Beautiful Freak released in 1996. The singles 'Novacaine for the Soul' and 'Susan's House' were international hits and it appeared as though Everett could do no wrong. But the bands apparently relentless rise to fame and recognition was overshadowed by deep personal tragedy; Everett lost his sister to suicide in 1996 and his mother succumbed to cancer in 1998.
Everett went on to write an excellent memoir: Things the Grandchildren Should Know, an autobiography that catalogues with typical gallows humour a life stalked by bad luck and misfortune. Although Eels haven't quite managed to sustain the success of their first three albums, they have endured, and their continued popularity cannot readily be explained. Everett follows his own star, and has rarely taken any notice of musical trends and fashions so Eels music always feels out of step and/or blissfully ignorant of what's going on in the current music scene.
He has continued to write honestly and unflinchingly about his life and experiences and 'The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett' is perhaps his most personal album since 'Electro Shock Blues' in 1998. This is a collection of songs imbued with a singular warmth and compassion, and to these ears, represents a career best. It feels like a reappraisal of sorts - Everett is in reflective mood as he looks back on a lifetime of mistakes and wrong turns.
It is a gentle sounding record, largely acoustic based but decorated with tinkling glockenspiel and celesta, clarinet, flute and strings that give the album a warm, nostalgic feel. But this is no rose tinted view of the past - on the beautiful 'Mistakes of my Youth' he sings 'I can't keep defeating myself | I can't keep repeating the mistakes of my youth'; the theme of regret a constant one running right through the album. On 'Agatha Chang' it is regret for a lost love, someone he let slip through his fingers while on 'Where I'm From' there is a longing to return to a place he once couldn't wait to escape from; a recognition, perhaps, that we never really escape the emotional pull of the place we call home.
Ultimately, despite the themes of loss and regret, this is an album that ends on a note of real hope; on closing track 'Where I'm Going' he sings: 'Can't say I know what will happen tomorrow |I can't say I know if its joy or sorrow| But I've got a good feeling 'bout where I'm going'. 'The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett' is an album of rare wisdom, a beautifully life-affirming recognition that despite the uncertainties and the heartbreaks, this is a road worth travelling.
Review by Paul Page | FOUR STARS