Ladies and gentlefolk grab your Sunday best: Eels’ soul-stirring Royal Albert Hall live album/film combo feels like an evening in church. You’ll be a spirit reborn! Sure, there’ll be bearded fellas delivering solemn sermons about death, lost souls, and life basically being one big “Motherfucker”, but don’t despair. You’re in safe hands: the hands of Reverend Mark Oliver Everett. Kids call him “E”… and sometimes “MC Honky”.
Cancer. Suicide. Heart failure. Divorce. 9/11. Parallel worlds. “Cop bothering” facial hair. Everett knows these mean streets like the back of his hand. He and his disciples may have cuddly, peek-a-boo nicknames — The Chet, Royal Al, P-Boo and Knuckles — but make no mistake: they deal in the hard stuff — occasionally stuff about dog-faced boys and naked clowns too. But there are no tracksuits, boiler suits, or pyjamas for Eels at the Royal Albert Hall; this is the hour of suits ‘n’ boots. Now, hands to heaven, and hurry up — you’re already a year late. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…”
“What a dump!” is how Everett sensitively describes London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall. He’s joking, of course, but such amusing levity helps his followers through what is a captivating and intimate but often heavy-hitting first half. A crystalline cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star” from Disney’s Pinocchio sets the tone early on, a delicate act of daydreaming on the trail of the lonesome pine. The cautiously optimistic “The Morning”, the porch swing sepia of “Parallels”, and the countryfied happy-sad “Mansions of Loz Feliz” ease us into the night gently. “Here’s another one… don’t worry, it’s also a bummer” teases Everett before the moonlit sparkler “My Timing Is Off”. He’s not kidding now, but at least it’s a “sweet, soft bummer”. “Just gotta be brave enough to love and let yourself be loved,” it suggests as it tenderly napalms your heart.
Sitting comfortably and down for the long haul, we’re led into the hardcore “total bummer” department. If you’ve read Everett’s extraordinary autobiography What the Grandchildren Should Know, there’s no avoiding the aching weight of these subversively sweet songs. There’s the devastating “A Line in the Dirt”, which is either a flashback to Everett’s divorce, or something possibly worse (“I drew a line into the dirt / And dared her to step across it / And she did”). Then the deceptively dandy “Where I’m From” finds Everett on his couch reminiscing with his “three ghosts” before the “next level bummer” isolation of “It’s a Motherfucker”. That tune is one of Eels’ most beloved songs, featuring an exquisite timeless melody, one kept mischievously from the masses, accursed by its very name. This sobs toward the three-minute warning “Lockdown Hurricane” where we collectively shiver under shelter as “Death rattles our window panes”. “Who will discover the remains?” it ponders chillingly. As the dark tempests of “Hurricane” fade, Everett sternly declares, “It’s over”, and the audience, as one, breathes again. We are together… and alive!
“I just wanna have some fun”, decides Everett, and having shaken the night terrors and survived, the other side of Royal Albert Hall feels comparatively like a dance-in-your-pants, “Crikey! I’m healed” celebration. As the multi-talented players “Manage the yard sale” by switching skilfully between glockenspiel, cello, trumpet, melodica, timpani, and kitchen sink, we revisit almost every era of Eels’ rich tapestry (only 2003’s Shootenanny gets 86’d). The summer jazz of “A Daisy Through Concrete”, the marching “Grace Kelly Blues”, and the funktastic shuffle of “Fresh Feeling” feel like a block party on Sesame Street. Then there’s a go-go surf shimmy through “I Like Birds” (“It’s alright if you act like a turd / ‘Cause I like… birds!”) and the sweet, Shrek-shaped valentine “My Beloved Monster” before a more poignant final act which focusses on 2014’s excellent The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett. “Gentlemen’s Choice” serenades like Tom Waits singing Sinatra to the stars (“When I was young I had a dream”) whilst “Where I’m Going” closes the main set with reinvigorated ‘Can’t go on, must go on” determination. Shining brightest in between these lies “Mistakes of My Youth”, Cautionary Tales‘ crowning glory, where a 50-something Everett surveys his past through the rearview mirror: “In the final moments I hope I know that I tried”. It’s a true assault on the heartstrings, and when Everett sadly admits, “I am not a younger man”, you’ll be blubberin’ like a newborn.
Yet despite the heavenly, healing hands of these happy-sad psalms, it’s a “music-free” moment that proves most memorable. With the heavy lifting done, Everett abandons his piano and makes a last request: “Gimme a hug!” Into the crowd he leaps, and for a good five minutes he wanders amongst the startled, joyous congregation, delivering hearty hugs and handshakes. In an evening of magical moments, the look on people’s faces — no, the love on people’s faces — is perhaps the most wonderful and glorious of them all. Despite the hard school knocks of “Soft Bummer Rock”, no-one looks depressed, they look like they’re walking on, yup, sunshine. In this virtual “Living in the Matrix” age it’s refreshingly genuine. Human. Hallelujah and blimey, E is for everyone.
Returning to the stage a people’s hero, an elated Everett confirms, “That was fun and also terrifying” before suggesting they “skip the whole encore charade and just play some more”. The rest are for the roads ahead. “I Like the Way This is Going” is butterfly giddy and shy but inside screams “YES!” before “The Beginning” searches for the silver lining… albeit one hidden beneath the shit cloud of a broken marriage. Finally there’s Elvis swoon (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”) and a classy, ‘forget-me-not’ farewell via Harry Nilsson (“Turn on Your Radio”). As the band disappear for tea and scones, a maniacal laugh booms out across this treasured landmark. A curtain collapses and astride the Hall’s enormous 9,997 pipe organ sits The Phantom. It had been E’s dream to rock that “Fucking pipe organ” for years but his requests were repeatedly rejected. Now, resplendent in black hat and cape he jams “Flyswatter” and “The Sound of Fear” with devilish glee. A reassuringly anarchic conclusion to this regal “Gentlemen’s Concert”.
Everett was granted the esteemed “Freedom of the City of London” several weeks after recording Royal Albert Hall. Although there may be “too much bummer” for some on Royal Albert Hall, many will find it a richly rewarding, comforting, and quietly triumphant celebration from one of America’s finest underdog songwriters. There’s enough heart in this darkness that when its “cathartic communion” ends, you’ll feel you’ve been personally hugged by Reverend “MC Honky” too. “Fun and also terrifying”, indeed.