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Music: Eels * * * *

While still wading in the bleak waters of introspection, Mark Everett has managed to produce Eels' finest work yet, writes Eamon Carr

Much great art has long been about scratching around in the gutter and finding diamonds. We'll leave Caravaggio, Polanski and Burroughs out of this for the moment and concentrate on the musicians. You know them well. Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Tom Waits and Mark Eitzel are on the list. As is Mark Everett, the artist who first made an impact on the alternative-rock charts in the early 90s as E. A couple of years later he began trading as Eels. His Beautiful Freak album came out on DreamWorks and the single Novocaine For The Soul ensured Eels's status as a hit machine.

The man's bleak world view didn't brighten up. On his next album, Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor, dealt with his sister's suicide. Dead Of Winter was inspired by his mother's death from cancer. As the millennium dawned, Everett was channelling the emotional turmoil of clearing out the old family home into song. His eighth studio album as Eels doesn't have an optimistic title. But End Times is not a farewell note. It's a set of songs that deals with the break-up of a relationship.

Beck allowed himself to luxuriate in self-pity on his Sea Change album. Dylan cut deep with Blood On The Tracks. Everett adopts a wry tone on End Times, equating his personal catastrophe with the end of civilisation as we know it. Be advised, he's not talking about a McCarthyesque apocalyptic Road here. Rather, he suggests, "the state of the desperate times we live in. The bottom line-ness of it all. The end of common decency. The loss of caring about doing a good job. These are tough times. Who can you trust? Walter Cronkite is just a ghost."

With just an old four-track recording machine for company, Everett sat in his LA basement and poured out a set of songs that chronicle what Elvis Presley fans will know as the Mess Of The Blues. The album opens with an echoey acoustic guitar as Everett croaks, "She put her arms around me. Gave me a kiss. And everything was beautiful and free... in the beginning." Thankfully, despite his angst, the man knows that rock'n'roll has a unique redemptive power and so Bo Diddley-style maraccas usher in a glorious boogie as Everett pronounces, "I never thought that I should quit all the stupid crazy shit I do..."

He knows he's not alone. And this thought gives him a strength to laugh, Beckett-like, at his predicament.

The piano-driven A Line In The Dirt is so intimate and engaging that you don't anticipate the detail. "She locked herself in the bathroom again," he croons. "So I am pissing in the yard."

The angry rocker Paradise Blues might seem out of step with the emotional theme unless you realise that Everett's cousin and her husband were on board the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. "Scary little suicide bomber on her way to paradise...," he screams over a rinky-dink garage band organ on a track that's like a great lost Nuggets' epic.

Everett knows how to tell a story. His published memoir, Things The Grandchildren Should Know, has been rightly acclaimed. On End Times, he creates an impressive minute-long audio drama on High & Lonesome, a track that consists of a thunderstorm, a phone's engaged tone and footsteps through heavy rain. It ends with someone knocking on a door. Simple but effective. Everett once said, "People are always going to tag me as the guy who writes depressing songs but even in the sadder songs there's a lust for life." Certainly there's an abject loneliness to Little Bird ("Goddamn I miss that girl...") but it's plugged into a more holistic picture. Besides, the album artwork by graphic novelist Adrian Tomine is reassuring.

Resolutely indie, End Times ranks as Everett's finest work. It may be a true and harrowing story, but on the closing song, On My Feet, he sings, "I've been through worse and I'm sure I can take the hit." HHHHI