Conor Oberst, the playing-as-hard-as-Steve-Earle guitar-strumming
boy-o with the wailing voice behind Bright Eyes, is kinda like the
American rock underground's equivalent of Paul Thomas Anderson. His
records are insane works of ego massive undertakings of
artistic dice-rolling tantamount to pop-cultural hubris, working
broadly with broad emotional tools whilst chasing some kind of
idiosyncrasy. Essentially it's lyrically bloodletting a bleeding
heart, then throwing the musical equivalent of raining frogs into the
proceedings. And, resultingly, people are really split as to his
worth, with accusations of outright fraud and outright genius thrown
up with equal regularity. And there's the real possibility that he
could be both.
To backtrack: in 1999, at 19, young Conor turns up with a hazy
Elephant 6 association, sounding, on the debut Bright Eyes album
Letting Off the Happiness, like a troubled teen who's flogged
his Neutral Milk Hotel records within an inch of their life, throwing
out such delightful lyrics as "I give myself three days to feel
better/ Or else I swear I'm driving off a fucking cliff/ Because if I
can't make myself feel better/ Then how can I expect anyone else to
give a shit." The kid's 19, he's cute as a button, and he's pitching
lines like that. It's no surprise that other young, sad, sappy
suckers fall over Conor in droves. To some, he's a songwriting
wunderkind. To others, he's the indie-angst scene's answer to Ryan
By the end of that year, as we're tickin' over to the two-triple-oh,
he then lets loose with Every Day and Night, an EP so
bewilderingly angry and tonally silly that even those who'd proudly
been pro- or anti-Oberst now had trouble making up their minds.
Simultaneously getting more folksy whilst experimenting with really
awkward beats-and-loops, he delivers the most memorable moment on the
set when he turns his self-rage on others, yelling "I believe that
lovers should be chained together/ And thrown into a fire with their
songs and letters/ And left there to burn... in their arrogance." By
this stage, the songwriting boy wonder has developed a sizeable
strut, and there's close to a waft of rock star coming off of Conor.
Later that year he fronts with the second Bright Eyes album,
Fevers & Mirrors. And this is where the gimmicks come in:
spooky field-recordings, answering-machine messages, and
performance-art faux-rock radio interviews. But he does lots of
yelling. And whether you believe the lines he's spinning or not, his
yelling sounds like he believes it. There's greatness here.
But, there's also greyness. It's all so grey. Was Bright Eyes a grey
Back with a third album, Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep
Your Ear to the Ground, Bright Eyes takes Conor's pet
predilections to ludicrous ends. It is, in such, truly great, or
truly arrogant, or truly conceited, or truly preposterous, or truly
confused, or truly bemused, or truly profound, or truly magnificent.
Or maybe all of these things. At once. Or at times. He's armed with a
veritable orchestra of players this time around, but there are still
those little gimmicky interludes and games of audio-fidelity that the
boy loves with his blackened heart. The amazing "False Advertising,"
the high point on a sprawling, overwrought, eye-popping
17-track/73-minute album, is beholden to all of these things. Making
out like a stately torch song over a Muscle Shoals beat, there's
vinyl crackles and a transistor-radio chorus, and then there's a
dozen-some orchestral hands, many on percussion, making things mighty
grandiose as Oberst unveils some more self-loathing sentiments like
"And I know what must change/ Fuck my face, fuck my name/ They are
brief and false advertisements/ For a soul I don't have/ Something
true I have lacked/ And spent my whole life trying to make up for."
In the middle of the song, there's this moment where someone in the
big-band "drops it," possibly the trumpeter, it seems; and there's
Oberst, ever the rock trouper, unfazed, rallying the troops to pick
back up and start the song again with a 1-2-3-1-2-3.
But listen to the lyrics that precede it, and there's this capricious
boy, musing on his life in Bright Eyes, singing: "If I could act like
this was my real life/ And not some cage where I've been placed/ Then
I could tell you the truth like I used to/ and not be afraid of
sounding fake/ Now all that anyone's listening for are the mistakes."
And, then, on cue, there's a mistake. Go back before that, and
there's Conor crooning: "Onto a stage, I was pushed/ With my sorrow
well rehearsed/ So give me all your pity and your money," to which
the chorus answers with the affirmation "We used to think that sound
was something pure."
At the end of the song, the band having 'gotten through it,' a
surrogate audience cheers enthusiastically, providing a mock response
to all that has come before, presumably praising the mistakes while
ignorant to the lyrics. Hearing the crowd cheering is reminiscent of
all of those Cat Power live shows, where Chan Marshall says something
like "I'm sorry, this show's so terrible"; to which the audience, in
either obliviousness or support, cheers. Uh, so, I guess the question
is: d'y'want to watch a handsome girl squirming to death on stage, or
see a cute boy screaming about the psychological torment of being
there? Or do you think these self-obsessed Americans should get over
it? And have you watched television lately? And, how do we react when
the observed party reacts to being observed? Do we call it pettiness,
or is it the most truthful? And, in art, which is all such artifice,
what place has truth?