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An interesting point that I heard somebody make about Eels recently is that they'd boast a much more impressive discography if they'd released fewer records, and employed tighter quality control. There's probably some truth to that - their twelve full-lengths to date have by no means been universally lauded - but it's also true that their catalogue now serves as an honest document of Mark Everett's evolution as a musician; there's been plenty of hits and misses, but they've all helped to display his progression to the world in warts-and-all fashion.

Last year's Wonderful, Glorious was a gleefully extravagant affair, characterised by bombastic rock posturing and energetic (and very funny) live shows. In keeping with the cyclical nature of Eels' releases to date, this album was always bound to be a little more reserved than its predecessor; sure enough, it's replete with reflective lyricism and a simpler, more restrained instrumental palette.

Even the title of The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett seems to point to a gradually-developing maturity on his part; the 'E' moniker is now apparently fading into disuse, joining eccentric behaviour in interviews and often-opaque thematic ideas on Everett's personal scrapheap of personality traits that he's now outgrown. 'Parallels' is the record's opener, for all intents and purposes - 'Where I'm At' is merely a short instrumental, blending piano with Beirut-style trumpets - and the early use of the line "ever get the feeling that the story isn't done?" seems like a fairly credible signifier that this is the opening of a new chapter for Eels.

'Lockdown Hurricane' opens with the same brand of twinkly keys that underscored 'I Need Some Sleep', pairing them with some gentle string work, and 'A Swallow in the Sun' and 'Kindred Spirit' follow the same minimalist template, both driven by delicate riffs. 'Where I'm From' is a little denser; it channels Nick Drake, with some mild vocal distortion and shuffling acoustic guitars. Instrumentally speaking, The Cautionary Tales is surely the most benign, tender LP that Everett's turned in; it's all perfectly charming - especially with him on the vocal form of his life - but you expect a little more bite, a little more edge from his songwriting.

To some degree, that's provided by the lyrics; unsurprisingly, he uses the record as a vehicle for some genuine rumination after the goofy bluster of Wonderful, Glorious. There's still a little of the tongue-in-cheek - the quickfire piano ballad 'Gentleman's Choice' is at once playful and poignant - but there's plenty of unflinching self-examination, too; 'Series of Misunderstandings' sees Everett discuss setting back the clock and "crash landings", whilst the meandering 'Dead Reckoning' - which aims for sinister sonic textures, but doesn't quite pull them off - laments a failed relationship in cloyingly melodramatic fashion.

'Where I'm Going' brings proceedings to a close on a positive note; the final line, "I've got a good feeling about where I'm going", isn't likely to require any serious analysis to decipher the meaning behind it. It sums up The Cautionary Talesfairly neatly; it works well enough as a snapshot of where Everett finds himself as he approaches middle age, but the overwrought agonisation on the past and infuriatingly samey instrumental choices make it a difficult record to love. The real cautionary tale, it seems, is that if you're going to make something that's superficially lovely, it's best to have some genuine emotional heft to back it up.

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