I listened to the new Eels album The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett and felt weary. I looked up the Eels on the internet, and I watched the video for “Novocaine for the Soul,” their debut single from their debut album Beautiful Freak, which I remembered seeing in 1996, and that made me feel old. I wanted to know how old Everett, who goes by E, was now, and found out that he is 51, and I chewed on that for a while. I already knew his story, somewhat, because it’s a hell of a story, but this album felt like it was telling the story of my adult life back to me while I sat there in a hard chair. Some of that is E’s intention, since he’s telling the story of his own adult life back to himself throughout the record. His life has many parallels to mine, as it would to anyone my age. But some of the hard lessons of this album were unintentional on the part of the artist, collateral damage of being able to self-produce and of cultivating a devoted fan base of like-minded souls. Mostly, this album is the sound of my own generation turning the corner into middle age, and by the sound of it we will not have an easy go.
I’ve never heard an Eels album before, but I wasn’t approaching them completely blind either, because I know all about the Eels. I know a guy who toured with them, and some friends have guested on the albums, and I’ve read a lot of magazine articles about them over the years. I never skipped over a magazine article about Eels because the story of E’s life was fascinating and tragic in the absolutely definitive Generation X musician sense. I don’t mean to make light of it; it is sincerely heartrending. I only mean that the Generation X model of artist was someone who processed his or her personal (often childhood) tragedy into art, someone who was connected by pain to the vein of truth that the rest of us had comfortably numbed. I remember hearing the story of Eels in 1996, when I was struggling to write good songs, and thinking “Here’s a guy who can write a song called ‘Novocaine for the Soul’ and nobody can challenge him.” Over the years, the stories I heard about Eels were always of this variety: E was a difficult but soul-searching artist openly battling demons in his music. I always admired the idea.
Now, listening to Eels, I can only imagine that the story of E’s life might be a creative burden. Every singer is in some kind of push and pull with their audience, confounding expectations, meeting them precisely, or disappointing them depending on how lucky, lazy, ambitious or adventurous they are. The Eels’ audience must be very complicated. On the one hand, the indie-pop music on this album is uplifting, despite every effort to be mournful and elegiac, in the way Grandaddy managed to be both merry and bleak. There’s a lot of twee-dark production choices that perhaps have become so prevalent among songwriters with their own studios that people don’t even notice them anymore. I mean, there’s echo used as an effect, rather than as a mood, and tinkly-toy instruments and distant, desultory drums, and little pulsing click tracks and glockenspiels and so forth. Despite this effort to sound emotionally wasted, the guitar and piano work is actually quite lovely. The melodic orchestration has a hopeful tenor, as though all the cocaine drained out of ELO and what was left was the sad morning-after feeling sitting in George Harrison’s kitchen.
The creative burden I’m referring to is all contained in E’s voice. When I went back and listened to “Novocaine for the Soul,” the thing that stood out was his voice. It was weary-sounding for a pop vocal, and that was its appeal at the time. It was weary-sounding because it was 1996 and no one my age knew how to have fun. Maybe we were tired of screaming all the time. We were definitely the most slouch-shouldered generation in recent memory. When E sang, his voice sounded prematurely tired, he looked smart and worn, and we knew from his thrift-store leather jacket and safety glasses that he’d seen enough of life to know that elegant resignation was infinitely better than trying too hard. It was ennui rock.
Fast-forward to now, and E is 51 years old. What is ennui supposed to sound like at 51 years old? I mean, on the one hand it’s not like we’re in uncharted territory here; there have been plenty of 51-year-old singers: blues singers and soul singers and rock singers, but indie-rock singers? Not many. How does a singer-songwriter mature gracefully if his early work was in a voice that was prematurely old? I don’t mean that he was 30 trying to sound 60 — lots of singers do that. I mean that he sounded like a 31-year-old who felt 60. He didn’t enjoy his 20s; what was there to enjoy?
Kris Kristofferson sounds worn out now, his voice stained with cigarettes and long nights doing amyl nitrate with Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel. Johnny Cash sounded worn out from inventing country music and driving around America in a Cadillac doing speed and fighting Satan. E sounds worn out from… sounding worn out?
I feel awkward making these observations. Let me spare the comments section the labor of bedeviling my qualifications: E has released 11 albums, and I have only made four. E is five years older than I am, and much more successful. I only say these things because I struggle to to find my authentic voice. I wonder how my rangy keening serves me as I get older, and whether maybe it isn’t time to drop everything an octave and start making alt-country dirges about how hard it is to find good artisanal pickles. Despite E’s 13 records (including two pre-Eels solo albums) and 20 years in the trenches, I hear him struggling to find his voice. I don’t mean that in the sense of “struggling to find his voice” like a life-coach might say to a retired police detective who has decided to build a windmill at Burning Man. I mean in the literal sense of not knowing how best to sing. E can sing several different ways, just like everybody can. Even Axl Rose can sing five different ways. And when E just stops thinking about it and sings in his normal, kinda scratchy voice, it sounds authentic and moving, and I can concentrate on his melancholy lyrics about yearning to reanimate his past full of his present knowledge. But a lot of the time on this album, you hear E singing in a voice that is full of other people’s expectations. I hear him trying to be 70 instead of 51, to be a voice equal to the story and the road time and the heartache. There are Tom Waits-y moments where you almost think he’s going to pull off a character, except the lyrics are all from directly inside his memory and mind. The character voice is an overlay, so he ends up sounding like a gold prospector who, after years of therapy, happens to be uncannily in touch with his feelings.
When indie-rock planted its flag in the ground of rock music, it was on the strength of the idea that lyrics about processing feelings could be useful to people. But the problem is that lyrics about processing feelings don’t lend themselves very well to getting old, because ennui is a young person’s malady. At a certain point, if you don’t solve ennui with action you end up surrendering, because no artist can live their whole life in a state of resigned frustration. A hard-worn, salty patina develops only if you don’t surrender, only if you keep fighting for something, even if it’s to learn acceptance. The old man who is still fumbling around trying to discover his motivation starts to look like a bit of a moocher, and a bitter old artist isn’t an interesting voice. E has decidedly not surrendered. He is still in the mix, still wrestling, and the age of 51 is a tricky time. I say this as a man of 45. The first real inkling that you’re not ever going to be any younger than you are today, that you’re hurtling toward death and can’t put on the brakes and you still haven’t figured out what your high school relationships meant and now you have to reinvent your life again, and then again, or tumble down into a heap of decaying bones? Jesus!
E is singing rough, like a bluesman, but the questions he’s asking are better sung than moaned. I can hear people encouraging him, saying it sounds intimate and affecting and real to grumble like a jake brake. But ennui doesn’t convert to the blues, no matter how much we thought they were equivalent. His words are about his real life, and they are thoughtful and true, but his voice is a costume. It’s the sound of “authenticity” but it doesn’t square with the message, with the yearning to understand and be understood. To find E’s heart, you need to dig deeper than his voice allows. As a first-time listener, I heard the gravel in his voice as a signifier of honesty, but I felt no intimacy. His voice shades his real vulnerability behind smoked glass. I identify strongly with E, it turns out, and I want to hear him actually cry like a 51-year-old man.