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The folksy, pop-laced material of Bright Eyes relies heavily on a switchback effect of fluid acoustic melodies and uplifting harmonies. Oberst plays using a straight-ahead guitar style with a prison-slop drummer, whose timekeeping seems like a purposely sparse framework for Oberst's lead. In the mix, one will discover violins, tambourines, the clang of finger cymbals and, occasionally, an organ bigger than John Holmes's. The band uses a minimalist approach to production -- the players remain in the shadows, their instruments utilized for accent, not foundation. The effect is like sitting around a campfire listening to a man tell stories, while a band -- sequestered in a distant wood -- chimes in from time to time for dramatic emphasis.
Sometimes shy, unmistakably youthful, Oberst hints that he is self-conscious about revealing his emotional grumblings. But the inclusion of printed lyrics on each recording's sleeve indicates that he clearly recognizes the power of words -- as both therapy and artistic tools. "Lyrics are important -- you need to have a way to express yourself," he says. "You need to say things in song that you can't say in everyday life." Like Elliot Smith or Vic Chesnutt, Oberst prefers to meditate on the metaphoric seppuku of fractured relationships, the anxiety and desperation of everyday life. His voice is clearly a young man's, but his words suggest the experiences of a person twice his age. And a troubled person, at that. Oberst's lyrical preoccupations clash with what the name Bright Eyes evokes. If not previously warned, you might expect Oberst's music to make you feel good, rather than devastated, after a musical go-round. It doesn't. (Consider "A Perfect Sonnet," from Every Day and Every Night: "I believe that lovers should be tied together and thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather and left there to drown, left there to drown in their innocence.")
Oberst is the sole songwriter behind Bright Eyes, and it shows. It's a process that he regards as equally exciting and exhausting, both emotionally and physically. Procedurally, the more polished-sounding Fevers and Mirrors seems to be the most trying of Oberst's releases to date. He wrote songs on piano and guitar before inviting a cast of musicians -- including members of Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal -- to add their own instrumental interpretations. Recorded in Athens, Georgia, with Macha producer Andy LeMaster, the album seems to indicate that Oberst aspires to move beyond the often-scrappy, homemade sound quality of his previous efforts. "The new record is about making music all day long," he says. "I was doing something with the sadness and the situation of having to create music, and this sadness can be paralyzing. Sometimes, you can lay in bed all day long and hide from people because there's nothing anyone can do to make you feel any better."
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Are bouts of sadness conducive to creation? "It can go either way," he says. "You need to put a considerable amount of effort to make sadness productive -- especially when you're trying to create something. But when you do, it's a definite feeling of relief. It's like you can make things better by making something."
One is inclined to wonder how a Plains-state boy, who seemingly lucked into a pretty comfortable life, could be so wrought with despair. He quickly points to Catholic preparatory school as one source of his initial discomfort with life. "Even though I hated it at the time, it did give me a good education and an emphasis on philosophy and high literature," he says of the experience. Yet his eventual disillusionment with the ideology intensified his lyrics -- as well as his psyche. "It was kind of a force-fed belief that I received since I was a baby. But at some point, you either accept or deny it, and when you're forced to do that, it plays a horrible trick on your mental state. The religious stuff fucked me up." The shadowy "On My Way to Work," from Every Day and Every Night, conveys his attitude toward the Catholic Church. With a nightmarish wail, he sings like man taken by demonic possession: "The choir of voices reaching way beyond the rafter with devotion/They perform these sacred tasks/They cross themselves and offer up their checkbooks/Sight suffering is not too much to ask."
Bright Eyes also comes across as if Oberst has been devastated by acerbic circumstances of love -- a notion that seems almost endearingly sweet considering his age. Yet like so many young lovers, he contends that he unfailingly believes in the possibility of requited love. "I'm not angry," he says. "I'm just sort of confused, like everyone else. It's hard to understand falling in and out of love and moving on with your life." Love, he says, is innocent at its best. "When it's innocent, you can't control it. So in some ways, it's like an element, but it's something that can become tainted and wrong."
Though he sometimes seems uncomfortable with the idea of sharing his most private thoughts with audiences of strangers, it's something he's had to get used to. His relative success means more time on stage and the road. Though he's been known to enlist as many as eight players on his recordings, the logistics of touring mean the Bright Eyes sound is limited to the number of players who can come along for the ride, and how many can fit in the van. On his current tour, the arrangement finds five players "doing different shit on different songs with acoustic guitar, bass, drums, steel pedal, vibraphone, mandolin and two keyboards. I couldn't bring my Atari 2600," he says, laughing.