This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.
When I feel bad (sad, angry, ugly, all of them), I buy stuff. If some vague existential chasm in the middle of my being feels like it’s widening, I plug it with piles of knitwear and hope for the best. It’s not a good way to cope – a flimsy plaster over a scabbed knee weeping low-self esteem – but in the moment it makes me feel better. And so in this way, I’m a good example of how the consumerist environment we are born into ends up encroaching on our emotional lives.
Recently I’ve experienced a spell of negativity. That means the number of sweaters in my wardrobe has regretfully heaved, and I’ve been giving more serious consideration to my use of commerce as a crutch. As I often do in moments like this, I’ve also reached for music that focuses on something similar. You may do the same. Either way, hear me out.
As one of the fundamental tenets of how we live, capitalism seeps into most everything. Even romantic life is, in our society, in some ways beholden to a relationship with the economy. And in all this awfulness, the way capitalism sometimes feels like our invisible bedfellow turns it into ripe material for rock music. After all, as a genre it's on one hand always been about Sticking It to The Man (Jack Black taught me!!) as punk continues to attest, while maintaining a fierce current of feeling. That's where Conor Oberst comes in. When the folk songwriter, known for his incisive but poetic personal commentary, first turned his hand to a more straight-up rock sound with his band Desaparecidos, he enmeshed rock’s traditional principles with nuanced observations of life. As a result, he made an angry, sad album about capitalism’s interactions with the most fundamentally human parts of people. I’ve played it to death over the last couple of months.
In 2002, Desaparecidos (“desaparecido” means “disappeared” in Spanish) released Read Music, Speak Spanish. That year, he also put out two other full lengths under the umbrella of the project for which he’s best known, Bright Eyes – Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil and A Christmas Album. Both are quintessential Bright Eyes albums; Lifted has all of Oberst’s songwriting hallmarks – vivid, verbose storytelling, and the ability to identify and communicate very specific emotions with quick, jarring accuracy – while A Christmas Album is testament to the strength of his style, as his fragile voice skates across much loved festive standards.
Desaparecidos, by contrast, was a completely different prospect, and offered a side of Oberst that wasn't necessarily new, but certainly much less seen up until that point. Read Music, Speak Spanish is characterised by a pace almost alien to Bright Eyes, and its scratchy electric guitars and always-propulsive percussion provide a backdrop for a biting, anti-capitalist lyrical agenda – delivered in a snarl instead of Oberst's usual lilting tones – which defines the whole album (the physical copy of the LP even contains a lyric insert laid out like a legal contract).
Oberst sort of dives into the bodies of various narrators (a young man tempted to join the army; himself as hot new musician), to humanise cheerful topics like the nihilism of contemporary, monetised warfare, and music industry careerism. “I’m not brave or proud of nothing / I just want to kill something / Too bad that nowadays / You just point and click,” he drones on “The Happiest Place on Earth,” the lack of movement in his voice echoing the stasis that nudges so many into service; while on “Mall of America” he speaks to his own predicament and the music business which places financial growth over artistic impulse: “They say it's murder on your folk career / To make a rock record with the 'Disappeared,'” he barks, the lines a wry scowl at the suits who’d try to keep him in line (though Read Music, Speak Spanish, as with all Oberst’s music, was released on his own label, Saddle Creek Records.)
In exploring different voices, Oberst’s lyrics across the album explore the various areas where the consumerist drive challenges and sometimes overtakes essential humanity. However, in a similarity with his other project, it is on the subject of interpersonal relationships that he is most compelling, in particular on a pair of songs called “Man and Wife, The Former (Financial Planning)” and “Man and Wife, The Latter (Damaged Goods)”.
“Man and Wife (The Former)” is the first track on Read Music, Speak Spanish and tells the story of a young couple making their initial forays into the world and the class system. It serves as a sort of mission statement for the record’s themes, as lyrically it connects familial and relationship stability with financial and social “success” (“‘Cause I sold some shit I'm saving up / We can get that house next to the park”), as well as constantly linking the desire for such viability with the later onset of malaise (“If you're feeling trapped or too attached / Remember we wanted that”; “So if you're feeling sad kind of detached / Remember we wanted that”).
On “Man and Wife, The Latter (Damaged Goods),” that melancholy has not only arrived, but become a permanent fixture in the relationship. This time, the woman is the narrator, and after the introduction of a slow, repetitive riff which foreshadows the monotony of her life, Oberst sings:
I'm growing out my hair
Like it was when I was single
It was longer than I've known you
I had no money then
I had no worries then at all
The internal rhyme of “money” and “worries” weds the two words together, and we immediately know that the obligations of capitalism have damaged the bond between two people. The narrator’s reference to her hair, too, seems to indicate the desire to pursue a more natural-feeling life, over the robotic, gender role-fulfilling sham her existence has become. “There's good reason for your silence / Have to take care of some business / So I fix your plate / And I stay out of the way,” Oberst sings, referring to the way a woman’s position as housewife itself serves capitalism, allowing the family’s primary worker to function as easily as possible.
Ultimately, she feels like she herself is a financial entity: “I’m a bill you pay / I'm a contract you can't break,” she says, describing her “high standard of living” as being “like I'm underwater / Or on an endless escalator / I just go up and up / But I don't ever reach the top.” The song, then, is a dirge for a once-loving relationship destroyed by the demands of the society in which it exists. It is both very sad and very honest; Oberst navigates it with a sensitive touch that is never too heavy, but which underlines the statement of his record: capitalism dims our emotional lives, steals joy, and, at its worst, overrides our humanity.
In keeping his subject matter on Read Music, Speak Spanish narrow but faithful to the rock tradition, Oberst achieves something rare. He's made an anti-establishment record that is both musically exciting – full of bold, memorable guitar hooks – and seriously thought-provoking, providing listeners with genuine considerations to make about their own lives 16 years on (he revisited Desaparecidos in 2015, and the band released a second album, Payola). And while I’m not sure I’ll be able to immediately give up the jumper habit, it’s a comfort to be able to examine, through this curious, furious album, the places where my urges come from, and to know that they are everywhere, in everyone – and that it is in recognising them that we can confront them.
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