Let's Not Shit Ourselves: A Rift Roundtable on Bright Eyes
“Squatters made a mural of a Mexican girl/ with fifteen cans of spray paint and a chemical swirl.”
Bright Eyes first came into my consciousness via Spin magazine, back when magazines sought the zeitgeist and not just advertising dollars.. Somewhere in their review they compared him to Bob Dylan. I have always leaned 60/40 lyrics/music, so I was intrigued. I liked Dylan, because Baby Boomers told me to, through Rolling Stone magazine or the endless 60’s documentaries, movies. Way before I learned Dylan was a plagiarist, I remember the revelatory moment of hearing Bright Eyes “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved) and knowing that it came from the same arena wherein I was residing, broke, out of luck, lonely and ambitious.
I know it is probably an unpopular opinion, but to me Conor Oberst presented the human condition more accurately than Dylan. Granted Dylan was clever, but Oberst ran the gamut of emotions - the lovelorn, unrequited, the silent wink between coke addicts, to the general malaise during the Bush years (culminating in his performance of “When the President Talks to God” on Jay Leno). Dylan had “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m only Bleeding)”, but Distant Dylan could never touch Oberst’s brutal honesty to me, it was beyond mere vocabulary, which is where I saw the comparisons end.
Back in the day of CD swapping, it was customary to lend CD’s and get loans in return. I swapped a few CD’s with a young man from a music theory class in college. One of the three CD’s he lent me included Bright Eyes Fevers and Mirrors. Like you, I was surprised at the richness of the lyrics and loved the way the album felt as a whole. His imagery in the album is surreal and evokes a feeling of haunted houses and dreams, possibly drug induced revelations. I think Conor’s ideas of the “fevers” really resonated with me at the time, for that is precisely what my early twenties felt like: a series of fevers, often bed ridden, dizzy, nauseous, and sensitive to light.
I remember the comparisons to Dylan. Poetically, I think Dylan could do some amazing things. Songs like “Visions of Johanna,” which can carry you for seven minutes on the strength of the images alone, though Dylan and Conor Oberst are very different. Dylan never really cracked himself open in a song.
Yet, I don’t know that the comparison is all that meaningful to me or all that important. I love Bob Dylan and I love Conor Oberst, for similar and different reasons.
Conor Oberst is only five years older than me though and I think his language, his preoccupations, his obsessions, and to some extent his sound, reach me in a much more immediate and fundamental way. His essential anger and despondency hit me on a very gut level, his talk of loneliness and love and dissatisfaction.
The malaise of the Bush years, that’s a good way to put it.
Ryan: It seemed that Conor hated the Dylan comparisons, but did not protest too much. This is America, you can’t sell anything without some precedent. Commerce is like law in that way and for all of Bright Eyes brilliance, he was not screaming “Fire!” or trying to go to a segregated school, metaphorically.
He was writing small songs, in Omaha, that were far better representations of Bono’s “three chords and the truth” than Bono could ever approximate. We associate ambition these days with a pretentiousness, but I think there is a place where ambition does not have a mirror, where it can be more a vehicle for testing oneself than impressing others. Bright Eyes always felt that way to me, that I did not matter. You look at the songs he was writing and recording when he was 13 and could already see that he was working with some larger ideas, ideas he may not have even understood at the time. He would write these relationships songs at fifteen that were so insightful. I knew he could not possibly have experienced that yet, but perhaps he had uncanny observational skills. Maybe he was writing about his parents? I don’t know.
I know that in the mid 2000’s there were a bunch of bands (Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie) who worked with some of the same ideas, but their word count always felt bloated, like their songs were seeking approval.
I agree. His songs are far more powerful than many of the bands that at that time were considered “literary” or poetic. The Shins, for example, were quite active during the time and I think Bright Eyes surpasses them in that he had this aggression. The Shins were too pretty, too controlled.
There was a grit to Conor Oberst, some internal drive to understand life through music, which made him so prolific and versatile.
But Bright Eyes were always so divisive. Why do you think that is? Perhaps Conor’s voice is an acquired taste? I think there was something in the lyrics that bothered people, there was an honesty that most people just don’t have the ingredients to say out loud:
“And try to just keep moving on, with my broken heart and my absent God/And I have no faith but it is all I want, to be loved and believe in my soul, in my soul…”
I don’t know know why he’s so divisive. A lot of it, of course, is Conor himself. He was always kind of an undefinable character.
I do remember people that only knew of Bright Eyes pass a quick judgement or shrug their shoulders upon their mention, without having really listened.
(Hey Ryan, do you remember that horrible local play you directed a couple of years ago? And how one of the stupid lines made reference to this very thing? Clearly the writer had no clue who Bright Eyes was. Somehow it became cool to dislike Bright Eyes or make it seem like it was a girl thing, which is ridiculous and uninformed.)
Yeah, “Kitten Kill Lion.” That line got a laugh every time, a cheap laugh at that. I think that is a perfect example. The author decided to hinge some difference between the sexes on a fucking band. But the male in that play was also written as smarter, hipper, cooler, more witty than the female. It’s what happens when a critic tries to be insightful, it is ham-fisted and boring.
Maybe he is divisive because the industry tried to create this image for him and he was just too complex for it. Conor Oberst had this misconception built around him that he was the good looking front man, the boy next door, the indie god when what he was, was simply a damn good artist and songwriter. I don’t ever remember thinking of Conor Oberst as the attractive front man. I think people tried to make him a sex symbol, but I could never really buy into that.
His voice is enigmatic; a combination of youthful virility and anger, vulnerable and coarse. His little songs from Omaha call out the hypocrisy, the small wonders of perception, the fevers, the mirrors of memory, and the realization that “I am really no one.” He has a lot of lines like this.
His voice as an “acquired taste” means to me that he falls into the category of singers whose voice comes from this unknown place, as if they pull the sound from some cave in their soul and it is textured so uniquely that the ear need really listen to take in. I can think of others: Tom Waits, Isaac Brock. What is interesting is hearing Conor’s control of his voice and its evolution. I noticed recently that in Cassadaga, in songs like “If the Brakeman Turns My Way” there is a very slight change of quality: more reflective perhaps aged, aptly, like wine.
I have always found Conor’s voice particularly engaging because of its raw quality and he’s never lost that. His ability to scream, say “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning” and have it not sound trite; instead, have it sound like a tremendous affirmation.
I never knew too much about him, because I think his music never felt as though it wasn’t enough. Some artists, you need context to make sense of them, sometimes you need context to enjoy them. Real artists, I argue, don’t require context. Context is for novelty.
Do you think that people need context to enjoy Dylan? That perhaps songs can become mere relics, rather than living works?
Well, I wonder if anything Dylan did would have been that exceptional without the public persona, the coolness, the mod fashion style, clever interviews. He was a folk artist who had style and charisma, much like Kurt Cobain in the nineties. Was Kurt exceptional? In the end it does not matter.
Regarding Dylan, I would say yes to an extent. If you think about what he did in conjunction with media in the 6 0’s it was pretty special, and some of his songs, like “Visions of Johanna” that you mentioned, are timeless. Blood on the Tracks, I would say is a perfect album. But expand the context a little, incorporate Charles Baudelaire, who talked about being weighed down by the conception and perception of time, and Dylan shrinks. However, I would say that for one year in the 60’s, Dylan was probably the most important artist of all time.
There are moments in certain Dylan songs that really transcend his image. He was exceptional at that time, as was Kurt Cobain, but the media plays a major role in all of it. The media created the Dylan people loved to mythify.
What I do find interesting though, is reading reviews of Bright Eyes music, other writings. You can clearly see how some critics, like many people, never move beyond their insular realities. They grow from adoration to calling him a caricature. It is reflexive, between the lines you can see the stasis of the critic, their inability to grow in the same way the artist does, their inability to feel or say something, quite possibly their jealousy of having lost something in their lives that’s still there in the music. They can’t enjoy it. Critics age badly, die young and live a long cannibalistic, voyeuristic life. They will always be the incestuous second generation of prior critics, and therefore, idiots. Their self worth, identity and awareness is itself vicarious, which is sad yet emblematic of our current society.
Nice tangent on critics Ryan. haha. I never read his reviews, but people have a hard time with tethered honesty and I’m sure Bright Eyes confounded many of them because of it.
But back to the music, I prefer his unhinged stuff. I like to refer to “Light Pollution”, a sort of elegy to a friend that died. More than anything it is the way his voice cracks amidst his scream at the end.
“Out past that sickening sprawl
Out past that fenced in gold
And maybe he lost control fucking with the radio
But I bet the stars seemed so close at the end”
Most musicians would probably ask for another take, for better enunciation, to fix the clipping mic, etc. Oberst probably saw this fuck up as approaching perfection.
His trajectory was one of growing pains. One of my favorite songs of Bright Eyes appears in an early EP titled Every Day and Every Night. It’s called “A Perfect Sonnet.” The song aching with poetic imagery, but has the classic Conor Oberst vocals and a fast strumming rhythm in the background which grows and swells and then calms. The song says,
“But I guess I'll have to settle for a for a few brief moments
And watch it all dissolve into a single second
And try to write it down into a perfect sonnet
Or one foolish line”
And it can almost appear that that’s exactly what he did: take his life in moments and dissolved them into songs, where each one crystallized into a musical gem to be thrown into a bottom of the ocean. His albums are an attempt to capture his life into a perfect line, a musical phrase, a chord progression, that might express what and why all of this is, with no apologies, no reservations, no lack of confessions. And there could never be a perfect sonnet, only an imperfect one and perhaps that’s the only way Conor would have wanted it.