Little Boy Blue
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."
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."
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."
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.
Oberst is quick to laugh -- at himself, at his life, at the circumstances of his increased musical profile. But the laughter is quick and fleeting, then the serious, philosophical young man returns. "I am in a unique position of traveling and playing, and I am grateful for that," he says. "In the past year, there have been some significant changes. I have become more accepting of things; I don't struggle to make things perfect anymore. There's always the fact that I'll be unhappy, so I need to focus on the joy. But I have a long way to go."
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