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Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011

Eels Make Peace With the Past

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Over the last 20 years Mark Oliver Everett has built a deep catalog of evocative, idiosyncratic rock as the auteur behind the Eels. Everett sings in a hoarse, flattened voice that dovetails with the downcast tenor of the songs. But if there's a gloomy undercurrent to songs like “Novocaine for the Soul” and “It's a Motherfucker,” there's an equally strong spirit of hope running through this colorfully cinematic music. This unusual dichotomy goes back to Everett's troubled home life, where dark humor mixed with anger, parental indifference and dysfunction.

“So much of my childhood makes up things that I have to deal with on a daily basis—like a lot of people, but in my case it was kind of extreme. I might as well have been raised by wolves,” Everett says, chuckling. “[My parents] screwed me up pretty good and made sure things would be challenging for me the rest of my life because of it. But you can only deal with the cards that are dealt you and at some point you have to stop blaming everybody and just pull up your bootstraps and figure out how to make your life work.”

Part of that work was done through an autobiography that Everett published in late 2007 titled Things the Grandchildren Should Know (the title is taken from a song, and is also a dark joke about Everett's position as the last of his familial line). It traces a panoply of odd occurrences throughout Everett's life, such as when he was 9 and an airplane crashed outside his house, covering his street in burning wreckage and stray body parts.

An even more significant event in Everett's life was the invitation around the time the book was coming out to take part in Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, a documentary about his father, Hugh Everett, the theoretical physicist who developed the branching lives/parallel worlds theory. The elder Everett presented his ideas to eminent physicist Niels Bohr, who laughed him out of the room, a scar that he carried with him the rest of his life. He ultimately left physics behind and became seriously bitter. Learning about this side of his taciturn father proved a revelation for Everett.

“It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” he says. “I didn't know what to expect from it. I thought, 'This is a strange mix of science show, family drama and rockumentary. How are they going to put this all together?' They did such an exceptional job, and personally it was invaluable to learn so much about my father.”

That energy went into a trilogy of albums that loosely represent the arc of his life. Originally conceived as two albums going from the heartbreak and ache of End Times to the redemption of Tomorrow Morning, Everett felt it needed a prologue. That came in the form of Hombre Lobo, an album about the catalyzing burn of desire, which he finished last but released first. The three albums came out seven months apart, beginning in summer 2009.

Tomorrow Morning
represents an interesting change in Everett's style. While it still explores the same broad instrumentation and richly crafted arrangements with bursts of rock energy, the lyrical tone has brightened considerably. This is epitomized by the pretty, keyboard-driven track “Oh So Lovely,” whose chorus is a transformational ray of unmediated hope: “Oh so lovely, Lord above me, I feel my heart changin' in mysterious new ways/ Everybody, oh so lovely, now how can I tell you how grateful I am?”

“[That album] was a direct result of doing things like writing the autobiography and making the film about my father,” Everett says. “I don't know if I'd be able to write a song like 'Oh So Lovely' without doing that first.”

Everett suggests he's feeling much happier these days. He's excited about his current tour, which features what he says is his best backing band playing songs from his entire discography. And though he's witnessed friends like Elliott Smith fall prey to the dark moods that obsess them, Everett's now confident the same fate won't befall him.

“There have been times I've felt that way, for sure,” he says. “But I feel pretty past that at this point. I'm having way too much fun to fall off the edge of the Earth.”

Eels headline the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Aug. 5, with opener Marcus Monroe.