The year 2009 was a success for Eels by most measures. Their latest album Hombre Lobo was met with generally favorable reviews, the band received more mainstream exposure, not to mention the record's showing at #19 on our Best of 2009 countdown. So it was generally a surprise to see news in November that Eels would be prepping new album End Times for a January 2010 release. Yes, Hombre Lobo was mostly a concept album, but the theme of desire was not all that experimental in nature-- surely there wasn't enough left in the tank for another high-quality full-length just months later. Well, to be honest, there really wasn't, and it shows on End Times.
With frontman E honing his message in on the trials and tribulations of aging and divorce, it can be imagined that End Times would not be the happiest album. Unfortunately though, the results are more dire than expected. Lost in the emotional muck and mire of an extremely weighty subject matter, E appears weighed down creatively. This lack of creative energy saps the effort of nearly all its enthusiasm or ability to convey an effective message-- indeed a harsh criticism right from the get go, but an unfortunately true one nonetheless. Separate messages in songs at the record's onset like "In My Younger Days" and "Mansions of Los Feliz" get completely caught up in their emotional similarities, and instead, bleed together as one large bout of depression, instead of individual ones. Title track "End Times" even appears to be a last gasp of sorts, and with attention waning by the midpoint, it would be hard to argue otherwise.
On End Times, E fancies himself as a singer-songwriter, a sort of folksy homebody in the vein of a middle-aged Bob Dylan. Maybe this is true. It's surely understandable given his apparent struggle with his 50s being on the horizon. But sadly, under the weight of the staggering depression which consumes nearly every orifice of the album, it's hard to notice this as well. E rarely exudes the confidence one may be used to from him, and instead, acts more like the shy kid in the corner on nearly every song. His confidence seemingly shot, it becomes a stretch to get through slower songs that, if contained on another effort, might otherwise be viewed more favorably. "I Need A Mother" is the ballad you should be paying attention to, yet without a real difference of mood around it, it bleeds unnecessarily into the scenery.
Still, listeners would be amiss to ignore the positives (yes, there are some). "Paradise Blues" is a proactive and emotional number filled with the same sort of energy that pulsed through Hombre Lobo. It also comes at just the right time, finally rescuing the tempo after a string of dangerously slow selections toward the middle of the album. "Unhinged" acts similarly, as a bouncy rock 'n' roll number that has just one downfall-- coming in at only two and a half minutes. End Times' best moment may actually occur in its final track (and not because the album's over). With "On My Feet," E appears to reconcile these extremely difficult issues and feelings both within himself, and with those around him. Finally, after all of the moping and self pity, he gets it. By song's end, you're actually kind of waiting for the next track, to see where he goes from there. Alas, however, the album meets its conclusion.
End Times deals with a lot of issues-- some built-in, and others, not so much. Translating the emotional hardship of coping with age and divorce is not an easy task, so for that E should be given credit. But this does not excuse the lack of execution. It's obvious that E and the band were committed to the task at hand, yet things just never got going. Nowhere on the album are we really forced to be overly attentive. No song sounds like you'd listen to it more than once or twice. And it's biggest issue: Nothing seems to stand out above anything else. It's not these are bad songs. In fact, none are all that intolerable. It's just that none are all that good either. The album is a collection of downtrodden songs, all about a topic we fail to find necessarily uplifting or necessary to add to our listening repertoire. Maybe that's the fault of the listener himself, but if that's the customer, the product has to lend to at least some of its consumers needs. It just wasn't the case here.
Best Track: "Paradise Blues'" (not yet available, but check out "Prizefighter" off of Hombre Lobo)
[Previously on Animal Noises: New Eels, "End Times"]