I’m going to write a random music-related post this evening. I was listening to Bright Eyes earlier today at work, and realized it had been a while since I visited their music. Bright Eyes is one of my forever-favorite bands. What I mean by that is I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of them. Since Bright Eyes — which, let’s face it, is just singer-songwriter Conor Oberst and his accompanying musicians — has been producing music since Conor was in high school, there’s a song or an album for ever stage in life, every mood, from angsty to mellow to joyous.
I remember the first Bright Eyes song I ever listened to. I was a freshman in high school, and I noticed some interesting lyrics handwritten on my friend Annie’s binder: So I’ll keep working on the problem I know we’ll never solve/Of love’s uneven remainders/Our lives are fractions of a whole. And I asked her about it. She told me it was from the song “Bowl of Oranges” by a band called Bright Eyes. I went home that night and listened to it on the Bright Eyes MySpace page (ha, MySpace!).
I was hooked. Shortly thereafter, I purchased the Lifted CD from which that song and those lyrics originated. Bright Eyes’ dual 2005 releases of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning followed shortly thereafter. I listened to them on endless cycles of repeat, memorized the lyrics, and had them running on a memory loop throughout my high school days.
It might sound cliche, but that music changed me. It wasn’t foreign, because Conor — being an Omaha boy himself — incorporates many of the same classic folksy instruments I grew up hearing on the popular country music radio stations my parents love. The acoustic guitars, the fiddles, the slight twang was all there. But at the same time, it was like nothing else I’d ever heard before.
First off, Conor couldn’t sing very well. At least, not in the traditional sense (he knows this, see lyrics from “Road to Joy”: “I could have been a famous singer, if I had someone else’s voice/But failure’s always sounded better”). In fact, this unique trait combined with his phenomenal song-writing skills have led him to be declared a modern-day Bob Dylan by more than one music journalist. His singing was always raw, unrefined and fraught with emotion. It felt unproduced; more importantly, it felt real.
And the lyrics? Some are tongue-in-cheek, some harrowing, all are honest. And almost all of them are quotable, too, which is how you know they’re really good. I can credit Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes for introducing me to the wonderful world of indie rock — more specifically, the singer-songwriter folk revival movement. And I never want to leave. There’s just something so wonderful about talented, slightly troubled individuals making music, making art because they can’t imagine living life in any other way. It’s not about selling albums or concert tickets, so much as expressing oneself with the feeble hope that you’ll provide a little more clarity to someone else’s life. I love that.
I have now seen Conor Oberst perform three times live, all in Austin: twice with the supergroup Monsters of Folk (Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and M. Ward of, well, M. Ward — how could you go wrong with that combination?!?) at Stubb’s and ACL, and again for a Bright Show at Stubb’s. That last show, which was a 22nd birthday present, is something I will never forget.
Of all of the Bright Eyes albums (and I have 10 of them!), I think I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is my absolute favorite. I love it as much now at 23 as I did when I was 16 and it first came out. I think it has extra-special meaning in my life now: Conor wrote the album chronicling his life and thoughts when he moved from Nebraska to the East Village in Manhattan. All of the stories relate in some way to morning: morning as a beginning, and morning as an ending. Conor Oberst was 24 years old at the time of recording it.
I’m Wide Awake perfectly captures a place and time in Oberst’s life. It chronicles his first memories of staying in New York City, and the metropolis rarely gets a folk singer to chronicle its streets this lucidly, at least since the hootenanny days; he frequents its parties and stumbles down its streets like a midwestern transplant instead of a jaded hipster, sings about chemical dependency and the endless pains of love, while capturing as a backdrop the build-up to a foreign war. I’m Wide Awake weaves the personal and the political more fluidly than most singers even care to try, and the consummate tunefulness just strengthens those moments where he pinches a nerve– the songs that still give me chills every time, like “At the Bottom of Everything”: “Into the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair/ We must stare, we must stare, we must stare.” (from the Pitchfork review)
I’m sure part of the reason I love this album so much isn’t just about the musicality of it; it’s also about the memories I have behind it. I included the song “First Day of My Life” on the first mix CD I ever burned for Sean, when we were just friends. We even considered it for our first dance at our wedding (and with lyrics like “Yours is the first face that I saw/I think I was blind before I met you/Now I don’t know where I am/I don’t know where I’ve been/but I know where I want to go,” can you really blame us?), but we ultimately decided against it because it’s a folk song and we couldn’t figure out how to slow-dance to it in any sort of rehearsed manner. I did manage to incorporate a Bright Eyes song title into the title of my honeymoon photos album on Facebook (“June on the (North)West Coast”).
I hope I still love this album as much when I’m 63 as I do at 23. I hope it always reminds me of what it was like to figure out life while living in the Big City, and reminds me that it’s OK to never fully figure it out.
And who knows? Maybe we’ll even have the “modern-day Conor Oberst” by then. One can only hope.
To conclude, a YouTube video of one of my favorite Bright Eyes songs from that album. Please listen to it if you get a chance, or better yet listen to the whole album on Spotify for free. Or best, buy the album , and support some musicians!
Since we’re on the topic of music, I finished reading Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist yesterday. So cute! And what a fun experiment in collaborative writing — a female author wrote every-other chapter from Norah’s perspective, and a male author wrote the others from Nick’s point of view.
And I am able to relive on the of the MOST FUN musical experiences of my life through YouTube: Grouplove performing “Colours” at Terminal 5 last Friday night. I was there! I found confetti on my person for the remainder of the weekend. This was a fantastic show. I mean, it began with the members running out on stage to Kanye West’s “Monster” and ended with CONFETTI! Could it get any better?
No, no, it does not. (To make things even better, I watched Gossip Girl that weekend, and they played Grouplove’s “Slow” during a wedding scene. It redeemed the
scene show for its utter soap opera-quality.)