Reviews

Fevers and Mirrors

Author: Arnold Pan
06/02/2000 | Spin Magazine | www.spin.com | Album Review
Maybe he's not a child prodigy, but, at age 20, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst is something of an indie wunderkind. While the self-pitying plaints of college rock's most celebrated introverts have become all too familiar, Oberst, with his temper-tantrum confessionals, jolts a little new life into the genre of journal-entry lo-fi pop. His obsessional post-teen complications are barely on the mature side of adolescence, expressing those inexpressible feelings of expectant highs and disconsolate lows with rambunctious ingenuity.

You might describe Bright Eyes' third full-length, Fevers and Mirrors, as a portrait of the artist as an indie rocker: a record bristling with small epiphanies and little indulgences. On these 12 tracks, Oberst reveals a dramatic romantic sensibility and an extravagant attention to detail. Usually, such earnestness can be too self-important to be taken seriously, but there's a sense of awareness to Oberst's songwriting that makes its profundities endearing. So while it seems like the young Nebraskan is idealistic enough to believe in art for art's sake, he proves he's also smart enough to know better. On "A Scale, A Mirror, and Those Indifferent Clocks," Oberst delivers the Bright Eyes manifesto, straining his voice to the broken waltz-time melody: "You will find, easily, more than sufficient doubt / that these colors you see were picked by some careful hand / with an absolute concept of beauty."

Such philosophical considerations aside, Fevers and Mirrors is a noble attempt to dream that impossible dream. If anything, it's the failure and longing of Oberst's quest for the grail that make this album an engaging one, like on "The Calendar Hung Itself...," where insinuating vocals trip over manic electronica-lite freak-outs as the jilted Oberst haunts his ex. Similarly, the folk-rockish "Something Vague" tries to put its finger on something that just eludes its grasp, with its nostalgic mood crescendoing in a brainstorm of associations, only to trail off, spent in the effort.

But Oberst is savvy enough as a songwriter not to rely simply on channeling his precocity into histrionic love songs. His keen craftsmanship stands out on the album's subtler moments, as on the contemplative opening track, "A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever, and A Necklace." There, Oberst sets a tone of quiet desperation that builds with understated sentiment and carefully wrought lyrics. Indeed, the album's most reflective pieces show a sense of restraint that is compelling and deliberate. Letting the imagery and the fragile mix of flute and atmospheric keyboards do the emoting on "The Movement of a Hand," you can hear Oberst's tremulous voice hold itself back, while the charged contemplation of "When the Curious Girl Realizes She Is Under Glass" needs only a simple piano accompaniment to convey its hurt feelings.

As with any ambitious aesthete, though, Oberst's imagination can get the better of itself. Not every idea is good one here, especially the symbolism, which is laid on a little too thickly and borders on overbearing as the album wears on. And it's clear Oberst could use some self-editing, as he slips in a self-parodying mock interview onto the end of the simple acoustic number, "An Attempt to Tip the Scales." But with an up-and-comer like Oberst, it's easy to give him the benefit of the doubt, and chalk up such pretensions to creative temperament. After all, art for art's sake is never a no-risk proposition.


Fevers and Mirrors

Fevers and Mirrors

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