Bright Eyes Is Forever, Not Just for Puberty
Conor Oberst's melodrama hits hard in adolescence but as you age, you grow into understanding its themes – heartbreak, death, depression – more.
Illustrazione di Joel Benjamin
Each day this week, one Noisey UK staff member writes about one of their all-time faves (in some cases, one you might not expect anyone to love this much in 2017). Today: assistant editor Emma Garland, on why Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes project swings with more weight and depth as you age out of adolescence.
Between the ages of 12 and 14, I had a regrettable habit of scribbling all over my bedroom using the oil pastels I had to buy for art class. Every inch of my tiny room was layered thick with other people's writing. Quotes from Chuck Palahniuk novels ran along the skirting boards, Mercutio's entire monologue about shagging from Romeo and Juliet covered my door, and song lyrics snaked their way along the outward-facing panels of my bookshelf and between the many, many stills from Queen of the Damned I'd printed off and tacked to the walls. It looked absolutely terrifying, like a scene from The Shining – only instead of a kid with a shonky bowl cut it was me and my David-Bowie-as-Jareth-The-Goblin-King imitation mullet. I spent some time at home recently and sorted through all the shit I've stored in my nan's garage where that bookshelf now lives, supporting a dusty collection of VHS tapes, and let me tell you it is absolutely smothered – and I mean fucking caked, like highlighter on a Kardashian's cheekbone – with Bright Eyes lyrics.
My experience as a Bright Eyes fan has been overwhelmingly solitary, which sounds peak but is purely circumstantial. I was raised by the internet in the very early 00s, which meant that, like everyone else, loads of my friendships were formed over social media via mutual interests. "Which do you prefer: Letting Off the Happiness or Fevers and Mirrors?" was not a conversation I was having with other 12-year-olds at my school in Rhondda Cynon Taff, South Wales. One time, a friend I'd normally exchange mix CDs with plucked my earbud out during class to see what I was listening to and caught about three seconds of "Padraic My Prince" before pulling a screwface and throwing the earbud back at the desk like it was a carrier of disease. That was the extent of the discourse. As I got a bit older I'd end up falling into the local emo scene bookended by Funeral For A Friend and The Blackout, where bonds were forged by musical education just as much as they were by binge drinking. In the beginning, though, it was just me, myself, and my dial-up connection.
I couldn't tell you the first song I heard by Bright Eyes, or the first time I saw a picture of Conor Oberst – the band's founder, primary songwriter and inadvertent posterboy for navel-gazing kids in hoodies and the people who fancied them. What I do remember is being dealt a blow to the stomach by an overwhelming sense of validation. Thoughts that had been slow-dripping into my developing brain – vague preoccupations with lust and death; questions such as "why do I feel terrible all the time" and "literally what is the point of being alive" that I'd been too afraid and ill-equipped to vocalise – were presented before me, clear as a polished mirror. Better yet: by someone I could call my own. Any artist I had resonated with previously in my short life had either belonged to my parents or died already. Finally, here was someone who had similar thoughts to me, sounded like Bob Dylan for a generation whose collective coming of age was written on LiveJournal, and looked like he could've been one of the kids in my sixth form. He had songs that perfectly communicated the laboriousness and desperation of a deep depression; he had songs that perfectly communicated the renewed levity that comes when that depression lifts; he had songs about obsession and sex and being absolutely knackered by everything. Any overwhelming feeling I didn't have the life experience to understand had already been identified and unpacked in a way that helped me make sense of them as a teenager, but their significance only grew as I got older.
It's rare that the music you get into growing up is able to elicit the same reaction from you throughout your life. For instance, My Chemical Romance's Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge will bang into eternity, but my enjoyment of it as an adult is definitely more about the energy rather than the lyrical content. If I heard it for the first time right now, age 28, I certainly would not think, "Oh dang, I'm not OK either! This guy gets it!!!" That's not the case with Bright Eyes. I'm not sure if that says more about the music or me – some of the older songs ("Weather Reports") have definitely aged better than others ("Lover I Don't Have To Love") – but there's a rare timelessness to Oberst's songwriting that gives them a lifespan beyond eras and age brackets. He tells stories that tend to repeat themselves, and articulates struggles that aren't the kind you grow out of easily (if at all). It also helps that each of their albums tended to be fairly unbridled by whatever wider music trends were dominating around the time of their release, and it was never considered "cool" to like them in the first place. To be a Bright Eyes fan was to wear a scarf in the summer and spend your evenings photoshopping lyrics about missing someone over a burned-out press shot of Conor Oberst looking forlorn and then upload them to Photobucket so you could embed them on Myspace.
Until "First Day of My Life" came out in 2005, topping the Billboard Hot 100 to the tune of a thousand proposal vlogs, Bright Eyes fans were stereotyped as lonely introverts who spent a lot of time crying over leaves and fetishising self-destruction (in version 1.0 of EmoGame, Conor Oberst and Tim Kasher agree to join a quest because they were promised free alcohol). A person in a Bright Eyes T-shirt was the equivalent to a dog wearing one of those hi-vis jackets to alert strangers about their nervous disposition. We're an easy demographic to hate on face value, because the common denominator of Bright Eyes fans is having loads of feelings about everything. A good friend of mine once said something along the lines of, "I just can't stand his music, which is a shame because he's one of my favourite poets."
Perhaps it's to do with Oberst's songwriting being emotionally frank in a way that people find increasingly less palatable the further they move away from puberty; perhaps it's to do with how young Oberst himself was at the time – releasing Fevers and Mirrors at just 20; perhaps it's the knowing theatrics, the mock interviews tacked onto the end of an album, the recurring imagery and endless metaphors – but people are very quick to discount Bright Eyes. They're seen as adolescent, a band to inevitably grow out of, like a Hellogoodbye shirt (size: Youth Medium) or disliking olives. To that I say: nah.
I simply love it all. I love the way Conor Oberst's voice barely hold a note without shaking like a hand in the blistering cold. I love when someone goes the heck OFF on percussion and you can feel it deep in your muscles, like a Shiatsu massage for your emotions (see: "A Perfect Sonnet", "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)", "The Calendar Hung Itself"). I love his extremely heavy-handed references to clocks and ghosts, I love the moment "I Believe In Symmetry" takes a grandiose twist halfway through, and I love this absolutely basic video of him playing "Lua" at Coachella. Above all else, though, I love that Bright Eyes leaves me with nothing to say.
As someone whose entire existence is based on overanalysing the moment and living in the past and all those other unhealthy things the fake Chance the Rapper account told us to stop doing, that is a rare blessing. When I feel especially bad – like, do nothing all day except fry an entire bag of chicken nuggets and eat them in bed and fall asleep with my head next to the plate (repeat) bad – I can't articulate to save my life. It is physically impossible for me to send a text or respond to one, and then I get mad that nobody understands me because if they did they'd obviously be barging down the bedroom door to rescue me from my nugget grave. A cognitive behavioural therapy counsellor once asked me to keep a mood diary, so I'd have evidence of my emotional ups and downs, and during the downs the most I managed to do was write "ugh" before scribbling over the entire page and ripping it up. I completely lose the ability to sort through the chaos to identify causes and effects; instead, everything coalesces into an overwhelming mass of feeling, whose weight is impossible to broach.
Bright Eyes takes that same overwhelming mass and somehow gives it a shape. Sure, there are a fair share of songs about heartbreak and the odd questionable tale of a fictional baby brother's drowning as a metaphor for a relationship, but a substantial chunk of their discography – Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, especially – is just about being alive and how stupidly difficult it can be. I saw Conor Oberst play last month, and it's safe to say that I fell off somewhere between 2007's Cassadega and the more recent releases under his own name. When he played "Something Vague", though – a cut about (surprise!) depression and alienation from 2000's Fevers and Mirrors that he described as almost "too old to play" – my stomach dropped just as hard as it did the first time I heard it. Back then, it felt significant because it made sense of whatever loneliness and confusion puberty was doing to me combined with percolating mental health problems. It felt special, because I thought – with great Holden Caulfield-like naivety – that my sadness was special. Now it feels significant because it speaks to the extremely boring and incredibly lifeless effect of depression that sucks all purpose out of reality while charging anything fictional (films, dreams, daydreams) with a fantastic beauty, purely because they provide an escape from it. Depression will always arrive formless and heavy, like mist rolling into a dock – "something vague" is the closest most people will ever get to understanding it. Songs like that may hit harder in adolescence when you're acknowledging things for the first time, but they don't get left behind. If anything, you grow into them more.