Eels – ‘Earth To Dora’ review: cautious optimism and a bruised sense of romance

Mark ‘E’ Everett's 13th album under his melancholic indie moniker is a life-worn collection that charts the rise and fall of a relationship, exuding fragile hope

If you were laying bets on who would turn out to be 2020’s Mr Brightside, only the bravest would back Mark ‘E’ Everett. The indie star is reclusive, recently divorced, prone to recording albums about intense personal trauma and psychological collapse (1998’s ‘Electro-Shock Blues’; 2014’s ‘The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett’). Yet there he was on ‘Are We Alright Again’, the second single from this 13th Eels album, singing his vision of post-Covid idyll: all “smiling skies”, marching bands and avian bong buddies (“Hey, Mr Bluebird, give me a hit of that”).

Read more: Eels on new album ‘Earth To Dora’: “Dark phases happen, but they will get better”

This, after all, is a man who knows a thing or two about emerging from darker days. Five years ago he was considering quitting music altogether in the Eels hiatus that followed ‘The Cautionary Tales…’. The optimism at the core of his 2018 comeback ‘The Deconstruction’ feeds into ‘Earth To Dora’, even when its hypnotic, music-box melodies coil around its bleakest sentiments.

There were times that I didn’t think that I would see the sun rise / And that was fine by me, I didn’t care for being alive,” E confesses on ‘OK’, a delicate paean to the morbid mindset expressed in the deadpan croak of Lou Reed or late-period Johnny Cash, “but I know it’s another day and I’m OK.” The song explores betrayal, breakdown and despair just as starkly as previous Eels records – and similarly couches its agonies in music you might otherwise find tinkling from a child’s nightlight – but ‘Earth To Dora’ is undoubtedly a getting-over-it record.

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Revisiting the fertile emotional ground of Eels’ earliest albums, where naive simplicity met life-worn melancholy, ‘Earth To Dora’ is structured to trace the rise and fall of a relationship (but not, E has been at pains to point out, as an open diary of his recent, short-lived marriage). Opener ‘Anything For Boo’ finds this renowned romantic punchbag sidling cautiously and reluctantly into love, laying such winning lines on his new partner as “I learned the hard way to be prepared” and “given the options, I’d rather be alone”.

Predictably, it doesn’t work out. On the gorgeously deflated ‘Dark And Dramatic’, he notes: “She’s beautiful, but she doesn’t fight fair… Maybe something in her past makes her sure it won’t last”. The bluesy ‘Are You Fucking Your Ex’ finds them at the relationship crunch point, while collegiate soft rock of ‘The Gentle Souls’ soundtracks the final collapse. The comes a glimmer of hope: ‘Baby Let’s Make It Real’ and ‘Waking Up’ begin the romantic cycle back at its first tentative, cynical steps again; he’s even harder-bitten but helpless to resist another round.

All of which makes for Eels’ most complete and self-contained record, arguably the epitome of their ouvre and a record that places E – in his own gruff, xylophone-toting way –alongside the great downtrodden romantics: Cohen; Rufus Wainwright; Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields; Nick Cave. Just the sort of bullheaded optimism we need, in fact, to see us through the cold winter ahead.

Details

Release date: October 30

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Record label: E-Works / PIAS

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