Little Boy Blue

Conor Oberst sees the world through Bright Eyes.

When most of us were ten years old, we were playing Space Invaders, watching out for cooties and splashing in the occasional puddle left by afternoon summer rain. When Conor Oberst was ten, he was composing songs about Space Invaders and the joys of stomping around on rainy days. Unlike most of us, who, from time to time, may have composed a spontaneous melody to suit the day, Oberst was recording his own songs using an AM/FM cassette player from the back bedroom of his parents' house. At age twelve, he tried to sell the sole copy of one of his cassettes to a record store in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska -- for $25.

"I don't think it ever sold," he says, laughing. "It was so awful that if I was going to sell it, I might as well get 25 bucks for it." That was eight years ago. In the time since, Oberst has adopted the name Bright Eyes, recorded hundreds of songs, released three albums on Omaha's Saddle Creek imprint and produced a fourth, Fevers and Mirrors, which will see release in May. And while Oberst's early material smacked of the kind of adolescent angst that often stereotypically characterizes teenagerhood, his recent offerings reveal both a musical and emotional maturity that belie his still-tender age.

Now twenty, Oberst seems to live on the same gray street as fellow brooding poets Nick Drake and J Mascis, and his delivery conveys the sincere struggle of a young person whose primary concern in life is the quest for a little bit of happiness. Musically, Bright Eyes differs from the cheery, pizzle pop of many of his indie-rock contemporaries or the machochinations of post-grunge guitar rock. At times carnivalesque -- with guitars, mandolins, keyboards and occasional soundbites extracted from video games or household appliances -- Bright Eyes has always been grounded in pop sensibilities. His first release on Saddle Creek Records, a collection of songs written and recorded 1995-1997, is a catalogue of twenty tracks picked from roughly a hundred that he wrote between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Although it lacks guitar virtuosity, the collection shows Oberst as a resourceful songwriter doing his best with what little was available to him. Drum tracks are loose -- on some tracks, they sound as if they were sampled from a Smiths song; on others, it sounds as if he enlisted a student musician from his high school. "Saturday As Usual" suggests that as a Midwesterner in his mid-teens, Oberst possessed a remarkable ability to penetrate his own psychological workings. "It's Saturday as usual, it always is," he trembles on the song. "And me, I'm in my bedroom drawing on my notebook/Because my hand thinks I'm an artist, but my heart knows I'm a poet/It's just words, they mean so little to me."

Here's looking at you, kid: Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes in a reflective moment.
Here's looking at you, kid: Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes in a reflective moment.

Letting Off the Happiness followed collection, and with its release, Oberst's music began catching the attention and ears of the indie-rock echelon -- fellow musicians who'd heard tales of a brilliant little boy from Omaha who made tapes in his bedroom. That eventually led to collaborations with members of other Omaha acts, including Lullaby for the Working Class and songwriter Simon Joyner. By the time Bright Eyes released Every Day and Every Night in 1999, the outfit with basement beginnings had developed into a solid pop band. "A Line Allows Progress, A Circle Does Not" compliments a driving guitar with organ work of which Booker T and the MG's would be proud. The album finds Oberst and his collaborators playing with the verse- chorus-verse formula by blurring the lines between the song's beginnings and endings. As a whole, the transitions seem like lapping waves. The careful listener can hear phones ringing in the background, doors shutting and other environmental sounds. "Neely O'Hara," the album's last track, features one of Oberst's old professors speaking curdled Russian into a language-practice tape. "I was taking Russian in college, and my professor gave me a tape to practice my phonetics," he says. "When I was finishing the record, I thought it would sound appropriate, so I put it on there."

Oberst began writing songs and playing guitar when he was ten years old. Taking heed of his multi-instrumentalist father and older brother Matt -- who played in several Omaha bands but was never able to take his music outside the local arena -- Oberst seemed destined to become a songwriter. Currently focusing on his skills on piano, Oberst is a guitarist, bassist and occasional drummer. From his first show at age twelve -- during which he plucked an acoustic guitar and played prepubescent pop songs -- Oberst has heard the word "prodigy" thrown around in reference to his talent. It's a notion he seems unconcerned with. "I feel like an old man," he says. "I've been doing this for so long that nothing seems new to me. The critics, they know your age, and I guess they have to call you something. But I've just been making music."

Oberst continued to play solo acoustic shows until 1995, when he hooked up with Commander Venus, a "Superchunk-like" rock outfit that included future Bright Eyes guitarist Tim Kasher. "I guess Commander Venus was a rock band, because there was a lot of screaming and we played hard," he says. After two years of playing with the band, Oberst got tired of rocking out and decided to spend more time recording personal songs on a four-track, an ongoing project that eventually developed into Bright Eyes. "I had to do Bright Eyes material because I had hit a brick wall," he says. "I was emotionally tired of doing hard songs. I needed an outlet for my private songs."

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