Bright Eyes is one of the few artists around that can make me uncomfortable. I encountered Conor Oberst’s music for the first time around the release of Lifted (or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground) through a live performance; the first show of the Lifted… tour, a warm-up gig with the full 15(?)-piece band at the Rococo Theater in Lincoln. It was a good show, Conor threw a tantrum at the end, and I ended up buying the record.
Now that I’ve written that story, I remember we saw Desaparacidos open at Cursive’s The Ugly Organ CD release show.
I’ve got something to say about I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning eventually, but these stories are important; so much of Bright Eyes’ music rests on Conor’s person(a) that one’s response to it becomes an inextricable part of one’s response to the music.
Lifted… really challenged me; what could be made of it? All the overwrought emoting; is it intentional and contrived, or spontaneous? Who is this existentially angst-y fellow, and how did he become who he is? What’s his agenda? I listened to the record maybe once in every three months; I couldn’t take any more than that. The question of Conor’s sincerity seems to be the crux of understanding Lifted…, and I don’t know how to answer for it.
Enter I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; a much easier record on the ears, and on the heart – and ultimately, more meaningful for it. Ideology fades to the background of these songs. Much more graceful than Lifted…, the new album has the ring of observed truth seen through Conor’s eyes rather than the cacophany of cynical position statements and heartbrokenness. I listen to it often on my days off.
I particularly love the tone of “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” which reminds me of Mike Mogis’ production on The Golden Age’s EP. On the other end of the spectrum is “Train Under Water,” which is sunk by a chord progression that GarageBand might have written and Mogis’ uninspired, pat lap steel playing. It’s a shame; the lyrics are as good as anything else on the record, which is a high compliment.
Album closer “Road to Joy” is a disaster on paper. Copping the most familiar melodic fragment of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the song seems like the kind of grand overstatement in thought, intent, and execution, that creates Bright Eyes’ nebulous sense of insincerity. Yet, it works (somehow – sheer will, or audacity perhaps). That’s my relationship with Bright Eyes in a microcosm; suspicion and hesitance that leads, surprisingly, to meaning and fruitful insight.