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Fevers and Mirrors

01/08/2001 | | | Album Review
Fevers and Mirrors
Saddle Creek

An important new voice.

STYLE: Intense acoustic poetry
60s: Captain Beefheart
70s: Syd Barrett
80s: Pere Ubu
90s: Live, Jeff Buckley, Sinead O'Connor

Here's the latest from Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes, a "veteran" 20-year-old singer-songwriter from Omaha, Nebraska. On Fevers and Mirrors, Oberst's
adolescent disillusionment has surely compelled him to give a seemingly uncomfortable public voice to his introversion. Lily padding between several stages of emotional maturity, Fevers has the eeriness of a suicide victim's personal diaries being read aloud. The moments he chooses to sing about are sometimes small
enough to carry inside a secret locket and sometimes large enough to physically cripple an unstable mind.

Oberst has been blessed and cursed with a boyish quaver that is simultaneously compelling and unsettling. A natural divining rod for emotional intensity, it's the
driverless vehicle he uses to convey the deep, the dark, and the difficult with devastating honesty. Jealousy, pain, loneliness, desperation, heartbreak, obsession, vulnerability, and anger all get channeled through his trembling vocal chords. "Now and again it seems worse than it is / But mostly the view is accurate" warbles Oberst on "The Calendar Hung Itself..." Like the compulsively anguished and legendarily self-loathing Kurt Cobain, I hear a songwriting voice in this young man that can offer an immediate emotional connection to a whole new generation of internally confused young listeners. Which isn't to say that Fevers and Mirrors is solely for immature Gen X-ers. I'm not one, and this record floored me. The fact that these songs are highly personal in nature doesn't erase the common underlying themes present. He's not necessarily offering any solutions in these songs, nor should he be expected to speak for anybody but himself, but sometimes that's not up to the artist. In this case, empathy alone will have to do. Ironically, that was the last word Cobain ever wrote.

Oberst's writing style runs almost as a narrative, only repeating a chorus as some sort of obligation or concession to traditional songwriting. "When the Curious Girl
Realizes She Is Under Glass" hints at the reason for the lack of focus. "But no matter what I would do in an attempt to replace / All the pills that I take trying to
balance my brain..." In case it isn't obvious, this record will wear your emotions down to bloody stubs.

If there is anything that is preventing Oberst's music from gaining mass acceptance it's because he sometimes sacrifices nailing down an indelible melody to back up
his poetic musings. Despite that, there is no ignoring the power of his words. The imagery may be familiar (clocks, mirrors, coffins, etc.), but it's never used obviously.
Fevers and Mirrors manages to convey a deep understanding of both the beauty and tragedy of life. If this sounds heavy, it is. This is not a record to put on and
ignore. It demands attention in much the same way as the sudden profanity-laced outburst of a 99-pound weakling in the free-weights area of a health club. Push
anybody's buttons just right and they can become unpredictably dangerous when driven near the edge. At times you'll want to help him. Resist the temptation to
figure him out. It's more interesting his way.

A fascinating, tragically pathetic character evolves throughout the record. What prompts a 20-year-old kid to write "Now I know a disease that these doctors can't
treat / You contract it the day you accept all you see...Language just happened / It was never planned / And it's inadequate to describe where I am"?

Fevers is an acoustic affair for the most part, with a variety of instruments (glockenspiel, accordion, steel guitar, dulcimer, etc.) adding atmosphere and texture. Which doesn't mean this is a tame affair. There is more intensity here than on a hardcore punk album or hard-driving heavy metal record. The record either helps
exorcise the demons all of us have in our closets or it makes us aware of some of them. Oberst has spent many of his private moments staring in the mirror, to
state the perfectly obvious, and he's not able to cope with what he's observed. Emotionally exhausting, embarrassingly forthright, and the definitive example of an acquired taste, Fevers and Mirrors is a record that will be reappearing on my "Best of 2000" list in a few months.

Song Highlights
"The Calendar Hung Itself..."
"Something Vague"
"A Scale, a Mirror and Those Indifferent Clocks"

Letter Grade: A-

Fun Fact: Lyrical foreshadowing from Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"? "Turn around, bright eyes / Every now and then I know you'll never be the boy you always wanted to be / Turn around bright eyes, every now and then I fall apart." (Courtesy of the Bonnie Tyler Archives-quite possibly the least popular Web site in existence.)
Fevers and Mirrors

Fevers and Mirrors

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