It's not like Mark Oliver Everett (hereafter known as E) hasn't dealt with these themes before. His whole recording career, most of it done under the Eels moniker, has been full of brilliantly crafted pop songs that tour death, terminal illness, regrets, lost dear ones, a veiled belief in better days and times overlaid by thick angst, and now and then, actual bursts of bouncing joy and humor. So there's nothing really new thematically on the 11th Eels album, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, and even its sparse, stripped-down, and lightly orchestrated acoustic folk feel is something E has often visited. He turned 50 while writing these songs, so maybe that has something to do with the heavy and regretful tone that washes through these rather muted, weary, and almost whispered musings, few of which even rise to the tempo of a slow shuffle. There's hardly a snare drum or a trap kit in sight. E is obviously trying to present a story here, for the album opens with a brief instrumental called "Where I'm At," touches down on a song called "Where I'm From" midway through, and then closes things out with E doing his best Tom Waits impression on the closing track, "Where I'm Going," which ultimately decides, perhaps not quite completely convinced, that the future looks promising. But in truth, most of the songs have to do with regrets over a lost love, one E wishes he hadn't walked away from, and if that's what this cautionary tale of an album is cautioning, then it's hopeless, we've all done that. Everyone knows how that feels. What saves this album from being just another version of some guy at the bar going on and on about some lady he lost is E's subtle and easy way with a melody, and even though some of these songs are so slow as to barely have a pulse, they flow well and easily into and out of each other. A couple stand out on first listen, most notably the thoughtful "Parallels" and the first single "Agatha Chang," which captures this album's theme of facing up to and resolving one's regrets in a perfect narrative, and it gives off a Randy Newman singing Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" kind of feel. Obviously E felt he had to make this album. Now he has, and the message seems to be don't mess up a good relationship or you'll regret it, but only time will reveal what the future brings, and that future maybe, just maybe, might be better if we actually learn something. Thanks E. Who could argue?
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett