Bright Eyes – The power of myth
But now Oberst is 27. It gets harder to talk about him in terms of wunderkind, or any kind at all. I ask him if he’s ready for a flood of “Conor Oberst grows up” profiles. He smiles a little. “I mean, probably,” he says. “Because, you know…” he pauses, and adds, with friendly deference, “I’m sure you’re different…but in general, I think the press is pretty lazy, you know? So whatever the quickest catchphrase is will be what everyone says. And so that seems like a pretty good one: that I grow up. It seems like a natural arc to the story.
“But to me it’s like, just keep changing, whatever you do. My biggest fear as a quote-unquote artist is repeating myself. I don’t ever want to do that. I want to always be experimenting within my realm of understanding. I figure if we as a band stay interested in what we’re doing, then the audience will stay interested too. That’s the hope.”
BRIGHT EYES MYTH #2: THE MYTH OF GENIUS (A.K.A. THE MYTH OF DYLAN)
Scrolling through the Bright Eyes discography on the invaluable, if eccentric, website allmusic.com, you can read a lot of kind things about Conor Oberst. Assessments of the first three proper Bright Eyes albums — Letting Off The Happiness (1998), Fevers And Mirrors (2000), and Lifted — are complimentary, verging on adulatory. “Oberst obviously has the talent to support the hype,” one reviewer writes.
But then the tone changes, with strikingly negative assessments of the two 2005 albums, both written by Stephen Thomas Erlewine — one of the site’s senior critics and an avowed defender of the classic rock canon. His entertainingly bilious review reads like a greatest hits of Oberst vilification; Erlewine finds the music “simplistic” and “plodding,” with “monochromatic melodies” and “meandering arrangements.” The lyrics are “without any sense of rhyme or meter or gift for imagery,” with “cheap metaphors and clumsy words” sung in “a quavering bleat.” On the whole, Erlewine — who wrote the main allmusic entry on Bob Dylan — concludes that Oberst is a “shallow poseur”, a “pretty boy in a sweater”.
Erlewine is reacting as much to Bright Eyes’ boosters as to the music itself; the first part of his review notes, sneeringly, all the claims to New Dylanhood made on Oberst’s behalf. Adding insult to insult, he can’t resist pointing out that while Oberst was 24 when he released Wide Awake and Digital Ash, Dylan was 23 when he made Bringing It All Back Home, a work Oberst has not come close to matching. Which is, of course, true. And also not really Oberst’s fault.
If there is anything ridiculous about loading the New Dylan mantle on Oberst’s shoulders, it is that anyone is still handing out New Dylan mantles at all. Oberst is certainly not a New Dylan and not detectably a genius (whatever you take that word to mean). His lyrics are clumsy sometimes, and occasionally his melodies wander inconclusively. His voice does do that bleating thing, especially on the earlier albums. (And it is true that he wears sweaters, although when I met him he was in sort of generic indie thrift-store garb: white button-down shirt, navy blue slacks, shapeless black overcoat.) He also has never made a record as great as Bringing It All Back Home, and the odds are that he won’t; not many people have.
But arguments about “genius” obscure what has actually happened over the course of Oberst’s six Bright Eyes albums (eight if you count the two collections of outtakes, B-sides, etc.; nine if you count his Desaparecidos side project). And that is: He has gotten better. Genius supposes a talent erupting full-blown into the world, but Oberst and his cohorts have been on more of a learning-by-doing track.
On any given Bright Eyes album, there could be stabs at country, rock, folk, pop, punk and ambient electronica. Not all of them work. But the success rate is getting higher. Cassadaga represents Oberst’s most assured songwriting — it is full of big choruses and sweeping arrangements, and the lyrics veer more toward contemplative than confessional. It is more or less a folk-rock album, but with swaths of strings, girl-group backing, and a lot of muscle in the rhythm section. The first single, “Four Winds”, is a nightmarish road trip that references Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, but swings a lot harder than any apocalypse Yeats envisioned.
Oberst’s singing seems to have shed most of its affectations, too. The quaver is greatly diminished, replaced by a sort of dry slyness that suits his flattened Midwestern vowels and sibilants.
“Everything from my singing to my limited guitar playing and piano playing has all been trial and error and learning just through experience,” he says. “But I’m vastly more confident with my ability now to, for one, hit the notes that I’m trying to hit, and be controlled in my delivery. I think a lot of people don’t realize that the way I sang early on, it was just the only thing I could do. It wasn’t something that I decided to sound like that, it just happened.
“But as time goes on and I do a lot more recordings and live shows, and I can understand my ability and the characteristics of my voice and everything else, I can start to emphasize the aspects I like about it and de-emphasize the things I don’t.”
BRIGHT EYES MYTH #3: THE MYTH OF PLACE (A.K.A. THE MYTH OF NEBRASKA)
Always mentioned in tandem with Oberst’s age in those early profiles was the novelty of his geographic coordinates. Before Bright Eyes, Omaha was nobody’s idea of a hot spot. But with Oberst leading the way, a small stable of Saddle Creek acts such as the Faint and Cursive established an indie foothold, giving the boxy city on the Great Plains an aura of burgeoning hipness.
A 2003 article in The New York Times traced the rise of the “Omaha sound.” That most of the musicians not only knew each other but had long histories together (Oberst was an early member of the Faint, and played with Cursive frontman Tim Kasher in his first band, Commander Venus) helped solidify the sense of a full-blown scene.