Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
"When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about death," says the 24-year-old singer-songwriter, shivering on a park bench as a full moon rises behind him. "Not that I was suicidal, but there was an attraction there. Mostly because I was depressed all the time." He has progressed somewhat since. "I went from, 'I don't care what happens' to 'everything is terrifying.'"
An androgynously skinny five-foot-nine, Oberst sits wrapped tightly in a navy windbreaker and a gray hooded sweatshirt on loan from Blender to shield him from the autumn chill. As he leans forward his dark, indie-goth hair hangs over his upper face, giving him the winsome, Damien-from-The-Omen aspect that has magnetized so many from the stage. Not that Oberst is much for scary movies himself. "The last one I saw was The Blair Witch Project," he says, wrapping himself tighter. Regretfully, he must give the film a pan: "Too scary."
This kind of vulnerability has become something of a métier for Oberst. In the six records he has released as the leader of the emo-streaked, folk-rock collective Bright Eyes, the oft-tagged "boy genius" — who began his career at 13 — has bared his trembling soul with such a striking blend of witty confessional and finely turned lyricism that he now enjoys the status of "New Dylan," as the most critically lauded and obsessively followed young singer-songwriter in rock music.
Not that this buys much love in a dark Manhattan park. A dreadlocked guy emerges from the darkness to request money. "I don't know if I got any change, bro," Oberst says, digging in his pockets. The guy says he'll accept bills. Oberst gives him a buck. We decide to seek accommodations elsewhere.
Three years ago, at 21, Conor Oberst suffered a kind of midlife crisis. A very close friend, his age, died and he himself came close, after drinking a magnum of whiskey that landed him in the hospital. "I had to quit drinking and doing anything for a while," he says, apparently out of the woods now, as he sips vodka and soda.
"I realized how vulnerable I was, like the death could've happened to any of us. Then September 11 happened, then the war.
"Basically, my personal life changed and I was more freaked out. Then it seemed like the world was falling apart and I got more freaked out. So ever since then, I've been like…" He looks into the distance, as if searching for le mot juste.
"Yeah" he says, and laughs.
Now in the warmth of an East Village bar, Oberst hardly gives off an air of doomy folk-bard misery. Having said hello to some hometown buds, he's kicking back at a table in the rear, Godfather-style, giving audience. His cell phone goes off, playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
"I don't know why I put it on this ring, I fuckin' hate it," he says, pulling out his silver Verizon-issue cell. On the back, there's a sticker of a cartoon bear, holding a pitchfork, and a mouse, whose speech-balloon bears the telltale Dadaism of Japanese English: "Do you have corn?"
A Cornhusker State native, Oberst grew up in Omaha, with a dad who worked as an information manager of a bank, and a mom who served as an activist school principal. Just about everyone else — brother, neighbor and nearly all his friends — played in bands. "I got started so young because I was just tagging along with the older kids," says Oberst.
He began songwriting at 12, recording at 13 and, as a member of the band Commander Venus, signed a record deal at 15. As a result, his career suffered an awkward, Peter Brady–phase when Oberst hit puberty. "That second Commander Venus record is horribly hard for me to listen to," he says. "It's at that brutal point where my voice changed and I hadn't figured out how to use it again."
Having spent his later adolescence as a teen idol, Oberst now shrugs off most trappings of indie-rock it-boy posturing as just part of the gig. He's accustomed to stock press renderings of his looks. "They write 'doe-eyed' and 'floppy-haired,'" he says. "Always the flop." And he downplays the tokens he receives from heaving-bosom, cardigan-clad fans. "I get all the normal things," he says of his fan mail. "Stuffed animals. Flowers. Panties."
But all this must be reaching some critical mass now, as Oberst enters a boho version of the fast lane. Since the release of Bright Eyes' breakthrough record, 2002's Lifted or The Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Oberst has taken up residence in New York City, been linked in tabloids to alpha-groupie Winona Ryder, and, this fall, joined R.E.M., John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen on the anti-Bush Vote For Change tour, leading Bright Eyes before crowds of 30,000 people.
"It was super-awesome," Oberst says. He got to act on his liberal politics and sing with "older bros" like Michael Stipe, Fogerty and Springsteen. "The first night, it was pretty clear we were nervous," he says of the kick-off in Philadelphia. "Bruce came to our dressing room right before we went on and was just like…." He nods, puts a comforting hand on my shoulder and does a convincing Boss rasp, "'It's gon' be al-raaht.'" He laughs. "It actually really helped."
Now, Oberst is simultaneously releasing two new Bright Eyes albums: the folksy I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, whose guests include country chanteuse Emmylou Harris, and the more electric Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, which features Oberst's friend Nick Zinner, guitarist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Together, the albums make an imposing slab of breathless impressions and assured song craft from a troubadour on overdrive. Wide Awake opens with Oberst in folksinger mode, taking an audible sip of Jameson's and launching into a story of a plane-crash epiphany that kicks into a rousing, union-song-style call to arms: "In the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn't dream/we must sing/we must sing/we must sing."
Oberst wrote most of Wide Awake after moving to New York a year ago. "It was exciting and intoxicating and a lot of these songs are a product of those first six months," he says. The Billboard chart-topping single "Lua" (Portuguese for moon) contains the album's most precise glimpses of a young scenester sucked into the whirl of New York decadence. "Julie knows a party at some actor's West Side loft," he sings to a companion who "looks skinny like a model" and keeps suspiciously disappearing to the bathroom. Sounds like indie-boy is taking a major bite from the Big Apple.
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