Reviews

Fevers and Mirrors

Author: Travis Nichols
05/15/2000 | Flagpole | www.flagpole.com | Live Show Preview
In 1982, Bruce Springsteen found himself searching for some way to convey the icy despair and alienation he saw on the horizon for the U.S. working class after the election of Ronald Reagan as President two years earlier. Springsteen saw the rising tide of fundamental conservatism as a harbinger of doom for the blue collar families in America, and he wanted to somehow give voice to the cries of the naive and the simple as the machinery of capitalism chewed them up. So he settled down in his living room with a four-track and a guitar, hoping to conjure the ghosts of serial killer Charlie Starkweather and every hard luck greaser who had ever been left in the lurch by the system.
The collection was a slap in the face to a hit-hungry record industry that had come to rely on Springsteen's former E Street bluesy depth and an almost violent stripping away of all Springsteen's rock and roll frills. The black and white photo on the album cover shows the view from the passenger seat of a snow covered used car staring down a dirt road toward a bleak horizontal landscape bereft of trees, grass and any kind of human emotion. The photo alone says about as much as can be said about despair, alienation and the soul-sucking wasteland that is Nebraska.
There's something about the state that sends shivers down your spine. Yes, there's obviously the cold, but there's something else, too, some intangible sense of death and existential horror locked up there with the corn and the steak houses and the winters that go on and on in darkness, that you just don't find in other parts of America. The Boss knew this. That's why he named that album Nebraska. But for Springsteen, Nebraska was a nice place to visit - a place through which he could make his point about the stark, greedy future of America and the lonely people it would eventually fuck over - and then leave behind. For Conor Oberst, the brains behind Omaha's finest emo/acoustic/goth band Bright Eyes, Nebraska and all it entails is something different. It's home.

Every Day And Every Night
Oberst first began playing in Omaha area bands during the early '90s when he was still in middle school. Eventually, he landed in his first touring and recording band, Commander Venus, at the ripe old age of 15. After a few years of cruising the emo strip in Commander Venus, Oberst began to drift away from the band into his bedroom, where he used his father's recording equipment to put together what would become the first Bright Eyes record - A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997. These low-fi dirges were put out by his friends at Saddle Creek Records in Omaha and set the stage for the release of Bright Eyes' first studio LP Letting Off the Happiness - partially recorded here in Athens with Andy LeMaster and friends - less than a year later. Later in '99, Oberst - who is the only permanent member of the band - released the EP Every Day and Every Night. The 25 minutes on that record are the closest aural approximations of scraping the ice from your windshield when you're brutally hungover and late for your crappy job that I've ever heard.
The three-album stretch capped by Every Day and Every Night represents a startlingly mature body of work for the young Oberst. At 18, he more accurately expressed the heartwrenching difficulty of the everyday than most songwriters twice his age, and he added the conviction and tenacity of someone just starting to realize the full scope of the shit that is to come. Where most pop singers need to give laundry lists of abstractions and details to pinpoint their emotions for their listeners, Oberst can convey complex emotions simply through his quavering vocal inflections. When he screams, "You're going to wake from this coma/ you're going to crawl from this bed you made" on Every Day and Every Night, you don't need any more detail than that to make your heart crumple like an origami swan in the hands of a thoughtless child. That's quite enough. In fact, the raw emotion Oberst exudes is almost too much. It's the only music that I listen to that without precedent or forewarning can make me cry like a schoolgirl. Oberst's voice sometimes just pierces all my immaculately constructed emotional armor and gets right to the soft pink stuff underneath. It can be kind of a scary thing.

An Attempt to Tip The Scales
On May 29, Saddle Creek will release the second full-length Bright Eyes record Fevers and Mirrors - the most mature and musically complex record Oberst has yet attempted. It's got a quasi samba glam stomper ("The Calendar Hung Itself"), an alt-rock radio ballad ("The Center of the World") and of course the same crippling despair channeled through a quavering howl ("Sunrise, Sunset"). Most surprising, though, it's got a few brief moments of happiness and hope that shine though the existential snowblindness with homeopathic glory. It seems that the broken Nebraskan wasn't just a character Oberst played because he was good at it. He has an amazing ability to convey emotion directly: be it despair, ennui or small moments of happiness. In "Something Vague" he sings of a recurring dream in which he stands on a bridge in his hometown only to have the bridge fade away from him until he's floating alone out there in space. He sings, "and I stand like a star/ fucking glow in the dark/ for all the starving eyes to see." It pierces the same emotional armor as the earlier stuff, except this time I don't fall apart when I hear it. I pump my fist.
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