Once hailed by Rolling Stone and others as the millennials' Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst—who recorded, with a multitude of collaborators, as Bright Eyes from 1995-2011—has put out a wealth of (mostly) excellent indie folk-rock music over the past 20 years or so. And, while Oberst may not have any Nobel Prizes in his future, his impressive body of work makes the argument that this really wasn't just an instance of music writer hyperbole.
The new, retrospective Bright Eyes box set, issued on vinyl and CD by longtime label Saddle Creek, will prove as much, if you'll sit with it as you would an old friend on a cold night. That's just the thing with Bright Eyes songs: you've got to shut up and really listen. (It also helps if you're in a vulnerable and/or pensive mood. Also: wine. Lots of wine.)
In turns Dionysian and nihilistic, remorseful and angry, isolated and longing for love, jaded and amazed at the mere array of existence, Oberst's lyrics, delivered in his often frayed and quavering everyman lilt, are rife with observational humor, fleeting yet far-seeing insights into the soul of the sensitive postmodern man, flashes of exuberant poetic delirium, deadpan self-loathing, unflinching explications of myriad heartbreaks, the quest for transcendence (or escape when transcendence seems too difficult), and the nagging presence of paranoia and anxiety.
Diehards may bemoan the absence of the first two Bright Eyes albums—A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995–1997 (1998) and Letting Off the Happiness (1998)—as well as the many fine B-sides and EP tracks that Oberst churned out during these prolific years. I, for one, would gladly trade the comparatively tepid and uninventive People's Key for the warm and intimate bedroom emo-folk of Letting Off the Happiness. But, as it stands, this box collects the most important and polished work in the Bright Eyes catalog and works well as a retrospective, one-stop trove.
Since Oberst has retired the Bright Eyes moniker, though still working on solo material with some of the key Bright Eyes cast, this box set holds added weight as a document of something that is over. And, if you're one of the many fans who grew up to this music, passing through the excruciating awkwardness and unbearable lightness of young adulthood with Oberst's insular, emo poetry as your guide to self-help and soundtrack to self-harm alike, the set provides a kind of closure (or at least finality).
Photo credit: Moses Namkung
Oberst performing in 2009.
Only time will tell if Oberst will ever rekindle Bright Eyes—maybe it's best if he doesn't. He's finally making solo music that keeps the best of what he did with Bright Eyes, while proudly displaying the wounds of wisdom that a life of artistic toil and inner turmoil has earned him.
For me, the climax of the Bright Eyes drama, coming in four simple yet evocative lines that end "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)," Lifted's final song, represents Oberst's (and his fans') acquiescence to adulthood and exemplifies the stark poignancy and universality of his emotive yet philosophically insightful lyric writing:
"But where was it when I first heard a sweet sound of humility?
It came to my ears in the goddamn loveliest melody.
How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery,
to love and to be loved. Let's just hope that is enough."