"It's amazing that I got to make one album, let alone all of these albums," says Mark Everett, the lead singer of Eels.
By now, Everett — aka E, for most Eels fans — has been making music for more than 20 years. But while that longevity has birthed 11 studio albums and a legion of fans, it did come at a cost. "The price you pay for that," E tells The Week, "is it can arrest your development in other areas if that's all you're paying attention to."
Eels is set to release a new album Friday for the first time in nearly four years. Their 12th offering, titled The Deconstruction, is populated with songs mostly written during random bursts of inspiration E had during a lengthy, self-imposed sabbatical. The years of songwriting, recording, and touring were catching up to him, he says, and he found himself in desperate need of a break.
Of course, E began the hiatus only to find himself quickly unmoored by the change of pace. "It had been like 20 years of doing everything a certain way, so my goal was to just pay attention to all the other sides of life that I hadn't been paying attention to," he says. "Which was literally everything except my work."
The break ended up lasting four years. In that interim, E got the first acting gig of his life on Judd Apatow's Netflix show Love. "I figured that was okay because it's not what I normally do, and it's not like work," the singer says. "It's challenging, but it's also a vacation from what I normally do," adding that he felt less pressure because "there's no high bar set for my acting."
During his supposed break from music, E still wrote — but only when he felt inspired to do so. "I didn't know I was making an album for a long time," he says. "I would wake up and feel really inspired to write and record a song and I'd do that. Then it might be six months before the next one. Eventually I started to look at the songs that were mounting up and see how they sat together and look at the themes that were emerging."
The songs that were mounting up, it turns out, became The Deconstruction. Like many other Eels albums, Deconstruction is a dark confessional that is pierced by auroras of hope. E finds it important to make hopeful music — for his own sake as well as his audience's.
"I think we need hope more than ever right now. Compassion is a theme that comes up a lot," E says of the album. "If I'm talking to someone about compassion in a song, I'm also simultaneously talking to myself and reminding myself, 'Be more compassionate.' The songs are just reminders that everybody's doing the best that they can with what they've been given."
In the album's fourth song, "Premonition," E paints a bleak picture of the world before assuring listeners that it'll all be okay. "I had a premonition / It's all gonna be fine / You can kill or be killed / But the sun's gonna shine," he sings, over melancholy guitar and a hushed choir. Later in the album, "Be Hurt" features the rallying-cry chorus: "You're not gonna let it destroy you."
The man himself, however, admits he's not sure whether the hope he feels now is the same type of optimism he had earlier in his career. One thing is for sure, though: Age is freeing. "One of the nice things that happens as you get older is you get a better idea of what to sweat over and what not to sweat over," E says. "Your hard edges get a little softer."
For E, writing hopeful songs is just another way of portraying the world faithfully. Realism isn't just about portraying the darker sides of life — which Eels does too. It also means singing about hope, optimism, and the brighter things.
"Overall, I'm just trying to reflect life and all the different colors of life's rainbow," E says. "Some of it's pleasant; some of it's unpleasant. Ultimately, it's important to me to make sure that it's always in the name of trying to get to a good place."