Bright Eyes – The power of myth
Conor Oberst is sitting at a table in an East Village cafe, occasionally tossing his long brown bangs back from his big brown eyes, drinking serial cups of black coffee, and talking earnestly and candidly about things such as music, globalization and politics.
Which is exactly the kind of magazine-article opening sentence that Conor Oberst seems both to encourage and to resist. His hair, his eyes, his earnestness, his candor and his bohemian affect are all part of the standard-issue thumbnail sketch of Oberst. The physical details nod to his sex appeal (he’s good-looking, in the waifish way of pale indie-rockers), while the East Village and the black coffee and the earnest, candid talk all signal in their cliche way the weight-bearing seriousness of a seriously serious artist.
It can be a bit much, this whole package, especially because Oberst — the leader and sometimes only member of Bright Eyes — has been attracting such po-faced profiles in precociousness since he was approximately 4 years old. (For the sake of accuracy, I’ll allow that it is more like since he was 16 or 17. But it seems longer.) It can be a bit much even for Oberst, who mused to Chris Norris in Blender a few years ago, “They write ‘doe-eyed’ and ‘floppy-haired.’ Always the flop.”
Leaving aside for a moment the “voice of a generation” tag that has at times awkwardly accrued to him, Oberst is at least a member of a generation raised on a sort of mediated self-awareness: not so much awareness of the self as awareness of representations of the self, and how they can be manipulated to one end or another. (See, for example, MySpace.) As such, he of course knows how useful those representations have been to him, how much the media loves both his hair and his air of emotional vulnerability, and how much his fan base loves them too.
But knowing that and embracing it are different things. And so, sitting in an East Village cafe drinking black coffee, dabbing with a napkin at a spot near the left corner of his mouth where he cut himself shaving earlier this afternoon and small spots of blood keep reappearing, Oberst is gracious and expansive when talking about his new album, Cassadaga, and his friends and collaborators, but also carefully artless in his presentation of himself.
His earnestness and candor do not seem like poses, but they do seem like choices — a deliberate approach to the world, selected as the least morally problematic of many possible guises. When he groans a little about the photographers who are waiting for him back in his nearby apartment to shoot a spread for some German magazine, his lack of enthusiasm seems genuine. But it also, of course, serves the purpose of distancing himself from his own celebrity, without actually disowning it.
At one point in the interview, Oberst contemplates the cloud of external forces — fame, gossip, marketing — that tends to surround popular music, and that will certainly attend to Cassadaga. “When people are, like, thinking about the songs and trying get something out of them, obviously that’s why we release our records and hope people listen to them. I think that’s great,” he says. “But it gets a little convoluted with, I don’t know, interest in the people making it, over what’s being made. I really have tried to make the music stand on its own where it doesn’t necessarily have to be me singing it. I don’t know if I’ve quite got there yet.
“I think the best songs can exist outside of the person that created them,” he continues. “And I think a lot of my songs haven’t really reached that point. Like they rely too much on…”
On you, I say, finishing the thought.
“Yeah,” he says. “Which, I don’t know. I guess I’m not as into that anymore.”
He waves for another cup of coffee.
BRIGHT EYES MYTH #1: THE MYTH OF YOUTH
Conor Oberst turned 27 in February, which marks the official end of his youth as far as rock ‘n’ roll is concerned. Twenty-seven is the Jesus Year of rock, the point where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain all pulled up short. Oberst has had his documented dalliances with self-destruction — at age 21, an overindulgence in Jameson’s Irish whiskey landed him in a hospital — but he doesn’t seem in any danger of an early exit. So his only option is to keep getting older.
But for a long time, youth was central to his persona. You won’t read an article about him, including this one, which fails to mention that his recording career started at 13 (with locally released cassettes in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska). Or that he was just 18 when the first Bright Eyes albums were released in 1998 on Saddle Creek, the independent Omaha label that he helped found and for which he still records.
Prodigies make for good stories, and Oberst was prolific to boot, turning out albums, EPs, split singles, side projects, and all manner of collaborations with friends and kindred spirits, many of them in and around Omaha. His early songs were full of unabashed pretensions (“My hand thinks I’m an artist, but my heart knows I’m a poet”) and the self-involved romantic narratives of adolescence (“I need something I want to be close to/And I scream, but I still don’t know why I do it”). His voice had a reedy quaver that sounded perpetually on the verge of either a sob or a scream. Whether this made his music precocious or just precious, touching or cloying, depended on who was listening; his detractors multiplied almost as quickly as his admirers.
In any case, by the time of the third (or fourth, depending on how you count) Bright Eyes album — 2002’s much praised and inelegantly titled Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil Keep Your Ear To The Ground — Oberst’s status as heartland heartthrob wunkerkind was in full effect. Rolling Stone called him “rock’s boy genius.” The New York Times Magazine called him “the bard of teenage angst.” And when he released his next two albums simultaneously in 2005 — the country-rock I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and the percussive Digital Ash In A Digital Urn — his lyrical and musical ambitions still simmered with brash and sometimes foolish impulses. (The last song on Wide Awake, “Road To Joy”, put Oberst in the dubious club of pop musicians who have lifted the stentorian melody from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth.)