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Tom Thumb’s Blues

No one yelled “Judas” at Conor Oberst last Wednesday night at Town Hall, but the Bright Eyes frontman was definitely under assault. At any moment when he wasn’t hurling words at the room, Oberst’s fans were hurling words back at him—everything from “I love you, Conor!” to “Lick my balls.” Like the folk-music watchdogs who couldn’t hang with Bob Dylan’s electric guitar, these young people—and nearly every seat was filled by someone who likely became an underage drinker right around the time the 24-year-old Oberst did—were figuring out how to accept their hero’s ascent to his current pop-cultural roost. He had been theirs; now his ass belonged to Wal-Mart.

Oberst hardly appeared up to the job. A small guy by any standards, he looked positively tiny onstage, even surrounded by six sympathetic bandmates; wracked by a cough that only increased his Dickensian street-urchin steez, he handled the glare by keeping his head down and his grip on a Rolling Rock. Except for when he sang. Then indie’s Little Man Tate focused all the misplaced energy in the room into a single beam of seething folk-rock intensity. Seriously: However powerful you think the songs are on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, they sound like demos compared to their wide-awaker live versions. It’s how you know Oberst has become a folk singer.

Which is why his love songs sort of sucked. All recycled twentysomething anxiety and plainly disingenuous self-loathing, they’re hard to take in a darkened bar, let alone in front of a bunch of immature guys who scarcely need the encouragement. But when Oberst sings about America now—about making love to a televised war and the president talking to God—he taps into something fierce and vital and true. At Town Hall he kept things at a steady boil until the end of his set, when catharsis finally came with a “Road to Joy” that sounded like “Paint It Black.” It’s the last thing the kid needs, but as he smashed his guitar it was impossible not to think about another sad-eyed lady of the lowlands: Kurt Cobain.

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What Color Is His Parachute?

Age has its privilege. Wizening away here on the wrong side of 30, I’m totally free not to hate Conor Oberst. When, some 10 to 15 years back, I huffily interpreted the lyrical excesses of doomed and gorgeous boypoets as assaults upon my own earthier yet misunderstood sensibility (in other words, when my personal stake in policing the lusts of scenegirl cuties was greater), I’d have cackled at the Sting-unworthy “So you nurse your love/Like a wounded dove/In the covered cage of night.” Now I just want to hug the kid spindling that simile.

I’m not alone among the aged. After a decade of nurturing the maternal instinct in cardigan-clad college radio sweethearts, Oberst now renders their dads avuncular. And don’t he just know it. However viscerally Conor hates Bush, rubbing shoulders with Stipe and Springsteen on the Vote for Change tour was savvy. Already New Dylan-imated in the Times magazine, currently playing schmancy concert halls, inevitably to endure stultifying discussions about “the creative process” with Terry Gross, he now cements his status as youth culture’s apostle to the middlebrow with I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, a handsome channel 13 complimentary tote bag of an album that polishes his image as the fantasy rebellious son who hangs at socialist bookstores and swipes your Gram Parsons records.

Released simultaneously with the broodier “electronic” Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the “acoustic” Wide Awake is Conor in voice-of-a-generation mode, with Emmylou croaking harmony to provide bearings for the Quality Rock crowd. Though hardly homogenized, past indulgences have grown stately: Dylan-cribbed verse-verse-verse structures unroll rather than stagger; ungainly “Hey, my roommate’s girlfriend has a French horn!” squawks fade into distant fanfares. And throughout Conor contextualizes leftover adolescent death fixation amid the carnal stench of current events: dissolving a protest march into slow motion on “Old Soul Song,” deconstructing pacifist wisdom even as he weaves it into the everyday on “Land Locked Blues,” or just obliquely bleating “When you’re asked to fight a war that’s nothing/It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win.”

But with “folk” redefined among those in the know as kiddies making zoo noises or as harp-happy elfinkind, caustic earnestness can sound just too too Ani. And so the beat-conscious Digital Ash is partly Conor Postal Servicing younger fans. Sometimes, though, it’s the electro-goth Cure record Trent Reznor thankfully never produced. And sometimes it’s a morose Rain Dogs: The Early Years, featuring Nick Zinner as Bob Quine. And consistently it centers around the admission “I’m thinking of quitting drinking again.” On both discs, Oberst seems wedged between a spirituality he fears will cure his restlessness and a drunkenness he’s too smart to romanticize. The wistful misery of Wide Awake offers more balanced insight (“And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares/ Why do you say it like you’re right”), yet the abject misery of Digital Ash feels more lived in. “Hit the Switch” and “Devil in the Details” are as psychologically acute as any dramatizations of alcoholic self-recrimination I’ve heard in seven years of 12-stepping. More importantly, the desperate rationalizations with which Oberst rallies his way out of his despair sound just as familiar.

Up against the carefully realized Wide Awake, Digital Ash is a mess, and not just sonically. The almost classically balanced stanzas of “Lua,” from the former, freeze an unhappy love in stark relief. In contrast, the gawky “Theme From Piñata,” from the latter, leads with “I wish I had a parachute ’cause I’m falling bad for you.” And before you can puke, he cornily explains the title: There’s “something sweet” within his “shell” if you give him a whack. But though I’m sympathetic to both angles, in the end I’m slightly more partial to the mess. Oberst’s persona rings truer as work in progress; his self-pity simply proves that his stores of empathy are so boundless he can even lavish some on himself. If most sad sacks wallow, Conor’s more escape artist, wriggling out of despair toward some ripe, elusive epiphany he clumsily shoehorns into his inadequate romantic vocabulary.

My resistance to the autobiographical fallacy prevents me from wondering under what conditions he’s done his research on melancholy, though my avuncular drive insists on pointing out that drunks age poorly, if at all, blahblahblah. I hope he realizes Dylan Thomas was regularly called an asshole and that someday he’ll be dignified and old. But though I wish him the best personally, as far as art goes, his ugliness strikes me as more instructive to us old folks than his heroism. Hearing Conor re-enact the raw unfolding of poetic suckiness that is post-adolescence hammers home the real privilege of age: I’m free not to hate Conor Oberst because I’m free not to want to be Conor Oberst.

I still think the Arcade Fire are full of shit though.


Bright Eyes plays Town Hall January 25, 26, and 27.

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Accidentally on Purpose

Born in 1980 in Omaha, Nebraska, Conor Oberst has been recording since age 13, and has already released seven CDs documenting his prodigious lyricism, egregious pessimism, indiscriminate romanticism, and passionate belief that his self-inflicted darkness can be chased away, or at least held at bay, by guitars and four-track tape machines, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll go back to “drinking like the way I drank before.” He’s like that, Conor is. Long-winded, in a rush, exhaling lyric after lyric with little regard for meter, rhyme, or artistic decorum. Self-expression above all. And Lord, can this boy express himself.

Four of his records are with a mix-and-match band called Bright Eyes, one with the fine and yowling Desaparecidos, and two with his first band, Commander Venus. There are also several Bright Eyes EPs and a split album of orchestral pop with a sideman’s band, Son, Ambulance, who sound slightly less lacerated by life’s ordinary ups and downs than Oberst, and who prove that the tradition of Gilbert O’Sullivan remains alive and well in the Midwest. In short, enough music to provide a soundtrack to an entire life, which is just the impression that Oberst wants to give: his every experience and feeling documented, and you are there. This would be tedious stuff without talent, but Oberst has rare gifts. For one thing, an absolutely unerring sense of the dramatic.

His vocals are always raw, on the verge of breakdown or breakthrough; as a songwriter, he leans on pregnant pauses that explode his tunes forward and saturate his simplest acoustic strummings with a dark pageantry worthy of Joy Division, or at least Echo and the Bunnymen. His narrative voice constantly edges toward the prophetic, which is perhaps the legacy of a childhood spent in Catholic school, and certainly the cause of the usual misguided Dylan comparisons. Oberst, though, cares nothing for the blues and lacks Dylan’s studied timelessness. He is all about capturing the moment. His songs unfold as carefully planned accidents.

Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground collects his finest accidents yet. The music is scored for guitar, banjo, dulcimer, oboe, flute, violin, cello, French horn, trumpet, trombone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and what sounds like a gurgling bong; “Can I get a goddamn timpani roll?” Oberst asks at the start of the final song, “Let’s Not Kid Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved).” Some tracks are nothing more than scratches of guitar; others are inebriated country waltzes; one attempts a funk beat and, in the course of pondering the efficacy of desperate after-show sex, offers up the immortal line, “Your tongue in my mouth/ Trying to keep the words from coming out.”

Onstage at Irving Plaza September 20, it took a 14-piece band of multi-instrumentalists to reanimate Lifted‘s expansive arrangements. The music was ragged when it wanted to be, precise when it needed to be, with three drummers and a woodwind section that filled the air with delicate ’60s pop colors. At times, you felt you were in the room with the most ambitious and spirited band indie-rock has ever seen; at other times, it had the disarming intimacy of a high school band recital.

Bright Eyes albums are nothing if not obsessive—on two different records Oberst recalls that first kiss in attic, and the same summer rooftop party pops up more than once as well. But Lifted is different. Not a single song sounds like it was written and recorded in a closet, and while every lyric retains the air of impossibly direct confession, Oberst’s world now seems larger, populated. This may be the lesson of the other excellent album he released this year, Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish, where he steps to the mic fronting a guitar band and spews rage about the endless demands and compromises that the working life heaps on real people. Its lyrics jammed with shopping bags and malls and 14-hour days and SUVs, it’s a remarkable achievement for a boho who spends most of his time on a narcissistic quest for love. In the opening track Oberst imagines himself as a wage slave whose wife urges him to cut down on the coffee: “Baby, all that caffeine causes bad dreams. Where all your anxieties are released.” Seven songs later, he’s a money pig bent on building a factory the size of a country. Either way he’s stepping out of himself, giving voice to those desperate to “enroll in that middle class.” When he made Lifted, some of those voices stayed with him.

Lifted returns again and again to the idea of rapture, of being lifted above the pain and darkness of earthly life. By God, by song, by friendship, by love, by drink, by desperate after-show sex. It is a strangely religious album; every once in a while Oberst’s characters seem to have wandered in from a Flannery O’Connor story or a Walker Percy novel—whether they know it or not, they’re searching for good in a world that gives them nothing but bad. There are moments—more than a few—when the language drifts into that of a striving short story or descends into adolescent prattle about beauty and art, but I catch myself wondering at those moments why I find talk about beauty and art so very adolescent. Such is the challenge Lifted presents: the challenge of faith. It is frankly sentimental music, lost in memory, full of mistakes. Give it a chance and it will take you backward to a time when you believed in something that you don’t believe in anymore. And then, if you’re like me, when it’s over, you’ll remember you live in New York, not Nebraska, and turn on the TV.

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Emo Pluribus Unum

Today, the guys complain about the girls, the girls complain about themselves, and everybody complains about their parents and YOOOUUUU!!!!! The only big hit rock song to take a political bent in recent months was Jimmy Eat World’s “Bleed American,” which noted that Americans watch TV and take pills. The band sounded more sincere noting that “everything, everything will be all right.” A combo that opened up for that clean-cut quartet this summer, though, managed to bring a few new subjects into the canon.

Desaparecidos are a five-piece out of Omaha, Nebraska, led by Conor Oberst (the voice of mondo-melodramatic folk-pop conglomerate Bright Eyes) and Denver Dalley (a really big Weezer fan). Their out-since-February debut record, Read Music/Speak Spanish, is not only the most unflinchingly catchy rock to come out of an indie label since “Slack Motherfucker,” but entirely obsessed with how the State of America Today affects sensitive humans who reside in it.

The album starts with the sound of young women describing their ideal husbands until a radio-ready riff tells us we’re firmly in the hands of grade-A distorto-guitar melodica. Oberst then describes getting that first loan on the way to complete financial servitude in order to provide for his lover. As his voice wavers with anguish, he promises “we’ll graduate that middle class/get a nicer car full of shopping bags.” Three songs later, he flips roles and yelps in fear that she’s nothing but a wage slave (“And you will stay like that forever/right in front of your computer”) and that “a lifetime gets chalked up to an experience.”

Meanwhile, Dalley and the gang have treated us to every modern rock hook in the book: the Weezer waltz, the stop-on-a-dime punk blitz, the keyboard-inflected power ballad, all played with undeniable heaviness. “$$$$” even throws in some frenetic advertising sound bites, both reminding indie vets of Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me and introducing a whole new group of kids to an underused bit of music shtick.

The album’s obvious touchstone is Weezer’s epochal Pinkerton, whose legacy will only grow with the years to come. But where that album focused solely on Rivers Cuomo’s plight in trying to find romance despite his self-loathing, Oberst suffers from a different heartbreak, that of a small-town bohemian seeing the world and those around him homogenizing before his eyes. In a music scene focused on adolescent fears, Desaparecidos sound strikingly post-collegiate in their angst—Oberst himself, it turns out, dropped out of college.

Conor spits himself silly over the commercialization of “Greater Omaha” (he even gets to comment on the “restaurants per capita”), while “$$$$” and “Survival of the Fittest/It’s a Jungle Out There” provide stream-of-consciousness views of a life where greed is staggeringly commonplace and unavoidable. “Hole in One” closes the album, with Oberst’s fears about his own generation expressed in the third (“Adolescence made her an activist/Now she’s the one who does all the lecturing”) and first (“never mind the shit that I sing about because I’d sell myself to buy a fucking house”) person. The disc’s only bum line is a bit of self-indulgence about how rocking out is going to “murder his folk career.”

Desaparecidos don’t settle for vague slogans like Rage Against the Machine or (please forgive me) Fugazi, and passion and melodicism keep Read Music/Speak Spanish from devolving into mere harangue. The record reminds us what indie rock was once about: young punks in mid-American capitals, shrieking about the world around them over top-notch hooks until everyone listened.