FROM THE VAULT: Bright Eyes
by Kyle Kysela on February 24, 2014
Posted in: Album Review, Eclectic
I dread even hearing Conor Oberst’s voice for a minute or two, because it’s difficult not to tense up in anxious fear of the moment he’s going to let loose with a whirlwind of boo-hooing, masturbatory ‘emotion.’ But when he keeps it reined in he’s a competent songwriter (though I can still name a long list of better ones). I guess my point is that he ranges from god-awful (i.e. track 5) to fair (i.e. 4), which isn’t anything close to deserving of all those glowing accolades.
Album: Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Artist: Bright Eyes
Genre: EMOTIONAL Indie Pop/Rock
File Under: </3
Back in the halcyon days of 1993, when I was just a newborn babe, a 13-year-old Conor Oberst of Omaha, Nebraska was already banging out his first awkward, squawking cassette tapes of introspective, depressive folk songs—precious lo-fi tunes about love, death, alienation and family cookouts. A couple years later, at 15, Oberst was touring the East Coast with his emo-rock band Commander Venus and blasting songs about broken relationships and self-destruction, punctuated by pubescent voice cracks. It wasn’t until 1998 that the young songwriter left to focus on his solo project: an indie-folk act by the embarrassingly twee name of “Bright Eyes.”
Over the years, the band’s self-indulgent, emotionally effusive style coupled with its inexplicable mainstream success has made it an easy target for vitriol from the more ironic, self-conscious crowd. The WRMC review above, dated July 29, 2002, lodges many of the prominent (and often justified) complaints about Bright Eyes—the term “masturbatory” being an especially common refrain among detractors. Lifted, however, proved to be the band’s breakout album, garnering reviews in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Time magazine. It would go on to sell over 250,000 copies, entrenching Bright Eyes so firmly into the cultural consciousness that the band even makes an appearance in Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling 2010 novel Freedom, when the characters attend a Bright Eyes concert during the early-2000’s tour for Lifted.
Franzen’s protagonists—a middle-aged environmentalist and a former 80’s punk rocker—look about in astonishment at the youthful exuberance of the crowd and their relentless hero-worship of this “superspecial band.” The narrator laments: “The nation was fighting two ugly ground wars in two countries, the planet was heating up like a toaster oven, and here at the 9:30, all around him, were hundreds of kids… with their sweet yearning, their innocent entitlement — to what? To emotion.” The strength of the character’s jaded words, however, is undermined by his realization, upon Oberst’s taking the stage, that he was “the real deal, a boy genius, and thus all the more insufferable.” The character’s dilemma is the same as that of the original WRMC reviewer: Oberst is undoubtedly a preternaturally talented songwriter, yet there are times when his conviction to “performing sincerity”—Franzen’s words—boils over into self-indulgence and, worse, a sort of emo-chic posturing that panders to a fan base of self-congratulatory, over privileged tween dreamers.
An interesting confluence of factors made this album a logical choice for the first iteration of my feature From the Vault, wherein I reassess old album reviews from the WRMC library. First, the review was penned by what is likely the station’s most prolific reviewer, whose anonymous blurbs in impeccable handwriting are ubiquitous among the library’s shelves. Second, I’ve been a reluctant listener of Bright Eyes for some time now as a connoisseur of sad-ass music and host of the award-winning radio program “Downer Music with Kyle.” And finally, because I actually attended a Bright Eyes concert during their summer 2011 tour, also reluctantly, in order to see one of my all-time musical heroes—a band called the Mountain Goats, who, despite being over a decade older than Oberst and his band mates, were Bright Eyes’ opening act at the House of Blues in Cleveland. Like Franzen’s protagonists, I found myself awash in a crowd of black-nailed sixteen-year-old girls who had found it necessary to flat-iron the absolute shit out of their hair and, though titillating with excitement at the mere thought that the great Conor Oberst was currently within a 100-yard radius, were largely indifferent to the gracious and talented playing of the Mountain Goats. In order to rectify this obvious crime against humanity, I took it upon myself to scream “I LOVE YOU CONOR” and “LET ME HAVE YOUR BABIES CONOR” over the climax of the first few Bright Eyes songs before being asked to leave.
Ultimately, however, I think the original WRMC review should have been a bit more generous. Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is one of the band’s more solid albums, and behind overblown pity-anthems like the unfortunate fan-favorite “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” lie many more subtle tracks, such as “You Will…”, “Bowl of Oranges”, “From a Balance Beam”, and especially the album’s 10-minute closing track, which are all a good reminder of why a younger Oberst so often inspired comparison to—believe it or not—Bob Dylan. And for those of you who still scoff at that comparison, try listening to some of his prolific work in bands outside the Bright Eyes moniker. It’s more varied than one might expect.
Over the years, I’ve come to accept Oberst’s music for what it is: a hit-and-miss catalogue of effusive folk songs by a gifted, if occasionally overblown, Midwestern songwriter. I am no longer ashamed to listen to Bright Eyes. You shouldn’t be either.