Listen to this track by Los Feliz-based musical concern Eels as led by E, AKA Mark Oliver Everett. It’s “Parallels”, a single as taken from 2014’s blatantly self-referential The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett. The song would also appear on the excellent 2015 double live album Eels Royal Albert Hall.
Coalescing in the mid-1990s, Eels music covers a gamut of styles from sixties-influenced indie-rock, to roots-rock, to chamber pop, to a brand of Americanized trip hop, scoring E modest cult status enough to make a career as a professional musician known for brutally honest Lennonesque confessional songs. “Parallels” is one of them, springing from flowing acoustic guitar arpeggios and accompanied by a keening lap steel, a foil for E’s charmingly rumpled and weary lead vocal.
Before his professional music career began, E had been a part of a household with another well-known name in limited circles; his father’s, physicist Hugh Everett III. Many years after his death, the elder Everett makes his way into the middle of this song by his son. Or, at least his theories of quantum mechanics do.
E’s dad was something of a cult figure in quantum physics, just as E would become the same in the pop music field with Eels. Hugh Everett is the author of the theory of parallel universes or “the Many-Worlds Theory”. In its most practical terms, the theory states that if something can happen, then it actually is happening — somewhere. So, if you decided to take a trip to the beach, to say “yes” to a date with someone, or to move to another town, then there is a version of you in another version of the world who stayed home instead, said “no” to the date, and decided to remain in the town you grew up in, with all of these decisions branching off into near-infinite possibilities of cause and effect. This theory was dismissed for many years by the scientific community. But, it would grow in stature close to the time Hugh Everett died in 1982.
E never knew his father even though they shared a house for nineteen years, very much like two people living in entirely different universes. Even though they didn’t have a close relationship, they shared a common drive, even if it was in different fields. Having said all that, I don’t necessarily think that “Parallels” is specifically about a son trying to reach his father. On many of the songs on this album and on many of his other records too, E talks about his own limitations and the impact that his often poor choices has on those he loves, and on his own happiness. This is a song about finding oneself in the middle of a confusing and often hurtful world, and trying to choose the best path solely by using a sometimes damaged or biased set of perceptions. It’s about understanding why one makes the choices one has made, and learning to cope with the results.
Making choices and living with the consequences is a theme that runs right through the Eels catalog. That’s where Hugh Everett’s theory of parallels comes in, too. Somewhere, there is a version of us that didn’t get hurt, didn’t hurt someone else, and did the right thing. That’s not always the person we are in the world in which we “wake up lost” everyday. We have to deal seriously with the decisions we’ve made. But, this song is one of the most hopeful that E has written, about striving to become the best version of ourselves despite our flaws and failures, whether we’re a cult pop songwriter who never knew his dad, a brilliant physicist who can’t connect with his son, or neither. If a version of ourselves out there somewhere has overcome despite past mistakes and hurts, then in our own version of the world, maybe we can too. Maybe it becomes easier for us to forgive the errors and faults in others, even after they’re gone.
For more on this song, take a look at this live performance filmed at The Apollo.
To learn more about the career and life of Mark Oliver Everett so far, I heartily recommend reading his autobiography, Things The Grandchildren Should Know.
To learn more about both Everetts and about the Many-Worlds Theory, be sure to watch this forty-five minute long documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives which finds the younger Everett searching for who his father really was by speaking with his dad’s former colleagues and friends, and from those who venerate the elder Everett today as a visionary of quantum mechanics. You’ll also learn something about science!
At the time of this writing, a major vinyl re-issue program for the Eels catalog is unfolding nicely. So, be sure to check that out at eelstheband.com.