Music can be all things to all people. A shoulder to cry on, an old friend, or simply something to dance to. But can it also be a devil on your shoulder? There are certain artists who are so intertwined with teen angst that they feel like a rite of passage, part and parcel of coming of age.
How many teenagers believe they have found a kindred spirit in Morrissey or Kurt Cobain? For the most part we grow out of these obsessions as we emerge on the other side of adolescence. With Conor Oberst however, and more specifically his main musical project Bright Eyes, I still find myself plummeting down the rabbit hole of his music even now. When the old familiar darkness does hover at my door, it sometimes feels that I have a devil on each shoulder, Oberst and Tom Waits, with the angel seemingly missing in action.
There is a nagging feeling that Oberst and Bright Eyes have been slightly unappreciated in their own time, with the press often accusing the Nebraskan singer/songwriter of melodramatic hyperbole. When you mean so much to so many however, there must be something deeper that resonates on a level only heard between artist and listener.
I have tried to write this article several times over the last few months and it is listening to the Bright Eyes albums back to back that has been the stumbling block. Not because of the quality of the work but simply because it is emotionally exhausting. With that in mind this is the first RANKED article I have written from memory, without actually listening much to the content. Reach for the whiskey, let’s go…
6. The People’s Key (2011)
Key Track: Shell Games
What They Said: ‘I try to write songs that are a little more open to interpretation these days, even though I know what the songs mean to me. I think more people project connections to their own life. Which is just as valuable as what I intended.‘ – Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst returned to his ‘safety net’ Mike Mogis and the Bright Eyes moniker after four years, two albums released under his own name and one with the Monsters of Folk super group. For an artist constantly called out for wearing his heart on his sleeve, it must have been frustrating when sections of the music press accused the final Bright Eyes album of being ‘impersonal’. It certainly doesn’t sound that way when Oberst sighs ‘my private life is an inside joke, no one will explain it to me’.
That being said, The People’s Key doesn’t sink it’s emotional tendril’s into the listener in the same way as some of the other Bright Eyes albums, perhaps unsurprisingly as the record sees a Conor Oberst who has turned 30 and has found a new level of maturity. Overall, The People’s Key is a solid album but if it is to be the final Bright Eyes album, it has to go down as a slight anti climax.
5. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005)
Key Track: Easy/Lucky/Free
What They Said: ‘A lot of times, I’m frustrated with the pace of the music industry… it doesn’t really compute with the creative process, which is like, “Hey, I wrote a song today, I’m excited about it today. I want people to hear it.” And by the time people hear something, you’re almost not excited about it any more’ – Conor Oberst on the decision to release two albums simultaneously.
If there is one phrase guaranteed to strike fear in the hearts of a music fan, it is ‘double album’. Whilst there are some good examples of this rare craft, more often than not the double album suggests an album’s worth of killer and a whole bunch of filler. With the double release of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide, It’s Morning however, Bright Eyes released a pair of albums that are so fundamentally different from each other, that it is easy to see why the two LP’s were released that way. Having said that, there is no doubting that Digital Ash… is the lesser of the two works.
Oberst recruited Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner and Jimmy Tamborello of Postal Service to record an album steeped in electronica. The problem with this approach is that Oberst’s intimate song writing style loses some of its heart swelling emotion when paired with harsh industrial beats and the advances in electronic music mean the album also sounds a little dated now. Listen to ‘Down in a Rabbit Hole’, ‘Take it Easy’, ‘I Believe in Symmetry’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Skip the rest.
4. Cassadaga (2007)
Key Track: Four Winds
What They Said: ‘That song was written at the height of an intense panic attack’ – Conor Oberst on ‘I Must Belong Somewhere’
It pains me to have Cassadaga so low on this list because some of my all time favourite Bright Eyes tracks are on this album. ‘Four Winds’ is a masterpiece, ‘Soul Singer in a Session Band’ is irresistible and ‘Lime Tree’ is classic Conor Oberst. Unfortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to the aforementioned tracks. That’s not to say that Cassadaga is not a consistent album, because it is, at the top end of the list however, only the best will do.
Cassadaga is a small town in Florida inhabited by mediums and spiritualists that Oberst visited in the run up to recording this album. If that doesn’t really connect with the more country influenced sound, the philosophical lyrics were surely indebted to Cassadaga and it’s strange population. If you want a starting point for Bright Eyes without the heart wrenching emotional commitment of his earlier albums, then Cassadaga is the best place to start.
3. Fevers and Mirrors (2000)
Key Track: The Calendar Hung Itself
What They Said: ‘It shouldn’t matter what parts have to do with me and which don’t. People are just dying for it to be true, but it’s not my personal story. We tried to keep this one upbeat, but sad music is my favourite.’ – Conor Oberst on the personal nature of Fevers and Mirrors
The fact that Bright Eyes released one of the best albums of the decade a month after Conor Oberst’s 20th birthday is astonishing. Even more jaw dropping is the fact that the record becomes more prescient and important with each passing year. Fevers and Mirrors is a post apocalyptic panic attack that brings mortality, fate and longing into sharp focus. It is unnerving that someone so young could release an album obsessed with ticking clocks and the passing of time and Fevers and Mirrors is a consistently difficult listen, simply because it is so thematically dark.
The haunting genius of ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ builds up like the onset of madness and forms a neat couplet with the sinister ‘Arienette’. ‘The Calendar Hung Itself’ is as unrelentingly grim as the title suggests and the jaunty rhythm of ‘A Scale, a Mirror, and These Indifferent Clocks’ betrays an undercurrent of defeat and frustration. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in an outstanding piece of work.
As with Weezer‘s Pinkerton, Fevers and Mirrors finds an artist at their most bare, their most vulnerable, their most open. This gives the music an almost voyeuristic level of revelation and whilst this makes for an unsettling listen, the albums resonance ensures it will remain a timeless classic.
2. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)
Key Track: First Day Of My Life
What They Said: ‘When that was over, I thought, There’s no space in this music; it’s too much. My immediate reaction to that was to want to do a record that was just guitar and my voice, with everything stripped down’ – Conor Oberst on the difference between ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ and ‘Lifted…’
The better of Bright Eyes’ 2005 releases is the album that propelled the band into the limelight, eventually selling over 500,000 copies and making Conor Oberst a household name in the indie music industry. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was everywhere in 2005 and in ‘This Is The First Day Of My Life’ it also contains Bright Eyes most well known song. At 10 tracks and 45 minutes the album is Bright Eyes most focused and accomplished work and ‘Lua’, ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’ and ‘Road To Joy’ are fan favourites as well being Conor Oberst at his most accessible.
It is difficult to imagine the Bright Eyes sound being more expertly honed than on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and it takes a truly special album to keep it off top spot. Step forward Lifted...
1. Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002)
Key Track: Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)
What They Said: ‘I’m really glad we did “Lifted,” but it became this grandiose project, and there just wasn’t a lot of space in it. It was layer upon layer of instruments built up. I wanted a Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” or a Leonard Cohen’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man” feel—an immense orchestral wave.’ – Conor Oberst
Lifted is sandwiched between Fevers and Mirrors and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. This results in a marriage of the craftsmanship found on the latter, combined with the quivering lack of control inherent in the former. It is a dizzying and life affirming mix. This is never more true than on album closer ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves’, a 10 minute stomp through the death of the American Dream as a metaphor for Oberst’s anxiety. It is an astounding song that justifies all those Bob Dylan comparisons that have been circling around Oberst like vultures since the early part of his career.
Elsewhere, Lifted… impresses again and again, whether it be the folky sing along of ‘Make War’, the breathless optimism of ‘Nothing Gets Crossed Out’ or the show stopping ‘Lover I Don’t Have To Love’. Make no mistake, this is a genius at his absolute peak. In contrast to the messy Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, Lifted… actually benefits from heavy production and multi instrumentation. Oberst himself compared the record to the Beach Boys masterpiece Pet Sounds and there is no greater praise than to say that is a fair comparison. There is simply no other living recording artist who could have produced an album such as this.
Over the course of these 6 albums Bright Eyes and Oberst cover the whole gamut of human emotion from exhausted loss of control to confused alienation to cathartic optimism. If the purpose of art is to make one feel, then there can be no greater artist than Conor Oberst and his best work comes surely from Bright Eyes.
Conor himself once sang ‘If I went to heaven, I’d be bored as hell’. The next time you find yourself looking deviously over your shoulder for a Faustian devil to appear, than perhaps it is time to cue up some Bright Eyes…
DISCLAIMER – I know I have missed a couple of the earlier Bright Eyes albums, to say nothing of their live album and rarities collection. I made this decision in a futile attempt to try and cap this article at 1500 words. I would still urge anyone to give those omissions a listen however, there is a lot of precious metal amongst the fools gold.