Is Bright Eyes really all that? The 23-year-old Nebraskan singer/songwriter (real name Conor Oberst) has been turning up regularly on critics’ “Best Of” lists and drawing consistent praise for his talent, including his new record, Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. He’s a founding member of Saddle Creek Records, the center of a newly-hot music scene in Omaha which includes bands The Faint, Cursive, Azure Ray and Oberst’s own side project, Desaparecidos. But attention is shining particularly on the flirtatiously named Bright Eyes. His youth, raw emotionalism and productivity—he’s released three full-lengths and countless EPs and 7″s—create the aura of a romantically burning poetic spirit. Inevitable comparisons to Dylan have been trotted out, as well as Robert Smith, whom Oberst himself names as a big influence. And it’s not just American critics who are enchanted with the waif-like Oberst—the Brits are getting on board too. An article in the Guardian UK gushes: “Part of what makes Bright Eyes so exciting is Oberst’s obviously passionate belief in the ability of songs to communicate ideas. Lifted is gloriously wordy, more scathing and verbose even than early Dylan.”
Whoops. Brits have a tendency to get American soul all wrong. Bright Eyes is nowhere near as scathing as early Dylan—he’s a much gentler, if less acutely intelligent, spirit. Dylan wrote songs directed against specific people; Oberst writes sprawling odes directed all over the place, but most criticism is reserved for himself. “Verbose” is accurate for Oberst, who could stand to edit his songs, but he’s verbose in a completely different way from Dylan. “Long songs” is the only thing that really links the two. Dylan’s command of his lyrics, which derived their color and punch from years of devoted imitation of heroes from Woody Guthrie to Arthur Rimbaud, was in the beginning and remains head and shoulders above Bright Eyes’s. (I fully accept the old-fogeyhood that remark condemns me to.)
All this may be holding Oberst to an impossible standard (no “new Dylan” has been anything like Dylan, anyway.) Though his lyrics are often cited as a strength, they’re deliberately formless; critic Greg Kot points out they’re less song lyrics than prose poems, bursts of verbiage that fall loosely into a verse-chorus-verse structure. Oberst is good at writing catchy tunes, but what I find strange about his work is that his words often seem at odds with the music. On Lifted‘s “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” a song about a suicide attempt that landed the singer in a Chicago hospital, a bouncy rhythm and torrent of vague verbiage obscure the impact of the situation. By the end, you have no idea what he’s been singing about. Another song about the media scrutiny Oberst has felt since becoming well known (“False Advertising”) is sung to a lilting, sad melody, strings and other orchestral instruments pushing the mood to a surging romanticism. It’s hard to imagine remembering these songs, because they’re going in such opposite directions within themselves.
Oberst is a sincere fellow, without a doubt, but on Lifted his presentation is both melodramatic and coy. He does his material a disservice with gimmicks meant to distract the listener from the solid, radio-hit-type melodies he’s singing. (He’s the Eric Carmen of indie rock.) The record starts with almost two minute’s worth of recorded conversation—a few friends driving to the practice studio, it sounds like. The first song, “The Big Picture,” sneaks in almost from the background, which is kind of a neat effect, the first time. (If it were on vinyl, I can imagine skipping past the first few grooves every time I played it.) “The Big Picture” is a lovely melody practically buried in disaffected attitude. The guitar, slightly out of tune, is barely audible. The best effect is when a woman sings softly along with a recorded Oberst, whose voice is way back in the mix. All this gimmickry takes away from what should be an effectively presented, decent song. The song ends with Oberst bawling the final word in a startling outburst. You’re listening in shock when suddenly his yelling is cut off, silenced. I think that cut is even worse than the out-of-control emotionalism he gives vent to. Instead of letting us hear him process it, he lops it off as if taking the whole thing back. The moment suggests a cake-and-eat-it-too aspect to Oberst’s personality that’s off-putting.
Sometimes Oberst hits it right. He’s good at building melodic tension and crashing into a noisy chorus with just the right intensity. This works on the song “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will,” a song about a departed lover. It sticks in your head afterwards, despite the clunker of an ending: “If you don’t, I’ll start drinking like I was before, and I just won’t have a future anymore.” Wham. Oberst often writes ‘on the nose’ like that. The famed production rate of his labelmates at Saddle Creek Records—SPIN reported Oberst is the slacker, writing only one song a day—is probably responsible for the careless moments in Oberst’s lyrics. He’s aiming for abandon and he achieves it, but it’s too bad he doesn’t value subtlety a bit more. What do you want in a singer/songwriter—total honesty, or a good rhyme?
Lifted is ostentatiously rough-hewn—it’s practically the equivalent of an artist’s paint rag in place of the painting. The record is littered with incidental noise—casual conversation, an old record needle’s static, unidentified soundtrack clips—but such gestures drape unnecessary clutter over a group of pretty, singable songs. Oberst has a knack for writing tuneful, memorable, if not startling melodies. They tend to be simple and have the aura of drunken sing-alongs. In fact, the singer he reminds me of the most on this album is Leonard Cohen—the sense of willfully drunken abandon, the Euro-pop, horns-and-strings instrumentation. Sadly, Oberst lacks Cohen’s developed poetic gift. But he may decide it’s worth working on.
What lifts Oberst’s songs above the mediocrity of many of their lyrics is his sense of melody and his honest voice, when you can hear it. It’s likable, and when he isn’t over-pumping the emotion, it sounds genuine. But his unstable singing style and the bloated endlessness of many songs makes me imagine an SCTV skit with a Rat Pack-type old hipster approaching Oberst to give him advice: “Look, kid, you got a good sense of melody. But you got to get a good beat going, and then just sing the damn thing—get in and out. Don’t keep singing when you’re done. And don’t scream. Just get in and out.”
Oberst gives himself away on one of the final songs, “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves.” This song contains the lyric, “I do not read reviews. No, I am not singing for you.” (Good, because I’m about to squash him like a baby robin.) One verse goes: “My teachers, they built the retaining wall memory, all those multiple choices I answered so quickly. And got my grades back and forgot, just as easily, but at least I got an A.” What self-respecting romantically self-destructive folksinger would even bother to get an A, much less tell about it in a song? No, it’s part of the lopped-off-howl syndrome—there’s a wish to be both breast-beating and modest. Conor Oberst is like the most talented kid at an open mic, bursting with conviction but devoid of the honest cunning of a mature artist. He wants to be loved and he wants to tell us he doesn’t care if he’s loved or not. It’s human to be mixed up, but it doesn’t make for great songs. Not yet anyway.