Audio Autopsy, 1992: The Man Who Put the "E" in Eels: Mark Oliver Everett, "A Man Called E"
Tower Records/Hollywood had 🎧 available to listen to new CDs. The curiosity of a large, upper-case "E" on the front of one led me to the sublime melodies of a man inexplicably called "E."
Our Initial Meeting: 1 Point in Scrabble
Picture it: Tower Records/Hollywood, 1992. The CD looked like this:
With nothing…literally, nothing else to go on, I slipped on Tower’s headphones to listen to A Man Called E, his debut album. I mean, even the back of the CD was of absolutely no help:
Just a scant dozen songs, the Polydor Records logo, those same pesky parentheses, and a curiously-named Parthenon Huxley, who apparently helped E produce something (well, it certainly wasn’t a clear identity)!
“Venus De Milo grew an arm,
And Old MacDonald bought the farm.”
If it wasn’t the beginning bass melody and finger-snaps percussion, and his weary “Hello, cruel world, so this is you” opening (which landed on this heart with an all-too-familiar gentle thud), it was his mention of Norman Rockwell that kicked off the chorus.
Whomever this “E” cat was, his world-view may have been weary, but he was, apparently, an art-lover. His easily-hummable melodies were almost hinting at a Brian Wilson-like innocence in their child-like simplicity, yet an unexpected chord change here and a surprising modulation there suggested a decided sophistication…
Although he does play a toy piano. In a sandbox? Unsubstantiated.
His vocals were delivered in a personable and pleasing rasp mixed to seem right next to me.
“Dear Ma, You Might Find it Hard to Believe, But I Think I’ve Finally Found a Home”
I didn’t even have to hear the next song to know that “Fitting in With the Misfits” must’ve been written with me in mind, although I can’t recall much of that “fitting in” part. I wonder how he did it.
But, then, when I did hear it, I slipped easily into the low harmony part of this pre-chorus couplet, and suddenly realized his lyrics were just as in-harmony:
Now I’ve got friends that do want me
And take me as I am
Now I’ve got friends that do love me
I’m alright with them.
I had no idea where this guy came from, what he looked like, or why he would (or should) know so much about me, but I couldn’t get to the cash register fast enough! If I had noticed my eyes were slightly moist, I wouldn’t tell you (at least not on that day 31 years ago).
Extra Pieces of the Puzzle
One reason the music of Mark Oliver Everett hits so close to home for me might be this: “Underneath his smart, funny, curmudgeonly exterior is a big mushy heart.” Oh, so that’s it! Ariana Morgenstern of KCRW hit the nail on its proverbially flat head in her January 2021 article. Now, let’s pull the curtain back on Mr. E’s visage:
Born in Virginia in April 1963, Everett is the son of physicist, Hugh Everett III, originator of something called the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, admittedly a glaring omission on my liberal arts track.
When Mark was in his early teens, a special-effects laser struck him directly in the eye at a Who concert (they were at the Capital Centre in nearby Largo, Maryland, August 3 & 4, 1976; Mark would’ve been 13). He has needed to wear glasses ever since.
Everett’s father died of a heart attack in 1982 when Mark was 19. Mark was the one to find him; he later made a documentary about his father’s quantum theory interpretation, as well as his relationship with his dad entitled, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, for the BBC. It aired in the U.S. in 2008 on the PBS series NOVA.
After filling decades with music-making, solo and with The Eels, Mark has been subjected to all manner of loss and heartache in his life. As with most, if not all songwriters, the resultant rollercoaster of crippling angst and exultant joy threads easily through his music.
This “dark and conflicted vision,” Doug Freeman of The Austin Chronicle observed in 2011, is “one that can turn from bleak desperation to wry hope within a single song.” This is true of Mark’s output even as early as this A Man Called E album. “Everett’s never shied away from the intensely personal or tortured within his music,” Freeman concluded.
Everett: “I like for the listener to get whatever they’re going to get out the song and apply it to their own lives. I do feel that it’s the listener’s once it’s out there and they will do what they will with it.”
Lyrically, Mark’s a “love-sick puppy, a hopeless romantic, and a daydreamer,” opines MacKenzie Wilson of Allmusic.com, who also called E’s tunes on this album, “Heavenly pop music. Such drama is captured in album highlights ‘Hello Cruel World,’ ‘Are You and Me Gonna Happen?,’ and ‘E’s Tune.’ His lyrical poetry is his therapy, a common talent found in later Eels material.
“This debut solo release contains quirky melodies and mind-boggling lyrics, but E hits upon lush harmonies similar to the likes of Elton John, The Beach Boys, and Paul McCartney.
“But you have to appreciate E’s effort. He’s thoughtful and almost touching; he’s real.”
The Final Piece of the Puzzle:
One Pesky Letter: Medication vs. Meditation
Take the next logical step in the music of the man called E, Mark Oliver Everett, and his 1996 Eels album, Beautiful Freak. In his recent Earworms and Song Loops post, “Eels-Not Ready Yet,” Steve Goldberg focuses on a couple of the album’s songs that speak to him from a psychological and emotional level, as they must have to Mark when he wrote them.
Brief excerpt: “…Maybe the anguish and yearning in E’s voice — grabs me deep in the gut. It’s also the straightforwardness of the lyrics that hit me hard. There’s nothing metaphorical or unclear in the song’s words…” You’re ready: