I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
nervous breakdown, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes performs in the Kate Buchanan
Room, HSU, on Monday.
When I first saw Conor Oberst perform as Bright Eyes, I didn't know what to
think. "Is this a joke? Why is this guy even performing?" I asked myself.
On an expansive stage in Seattle's largest rock club, Oberst perched atop a
stool and eyed the crowd like a frightened mouse, saying little between
songs. He hid behind his guitar, which he scraped at halfheartedly. His
voice was hopelessly shaky, often off-key and timid, and occasionally it
would crack into an awkward squawk.
He couldn't have been more than 22 years old. He looked terrified. But you
couldn't take your eyes off him.
Most of what Bright Eyes does is an emotional train wreck: the guy seems to
be destroying himself, but it's hard not to rubberneck.
Oberst has been recording under the name Bright Eyes since he was barely a
teenager, and in the intervening 10 or so years has honed his confessional,
rambling songs almost to perfection without losing the intensity or the
trembling honesty that makes them so compelling.
A typical Bright Eyes song finds Oberst moving from a near-whisper over a
single acoustic guitar to an impassioned yowl backed up by an orchestra,
spitting out hundreds of words that tell stories of alienation, death,
addiction and, occasionally, hope.
He's also fond of adding extraneous touches of background noise, including
recordings of his childhood self reading aloud, a car trip with a friend, or
just somebody walking around and tinkering in the studio. These
eccentricities can be grating, but Oberst's devotion to his raw artistic
vision is admirable.
Surprisingly, the Bright Eyes single "Lua" debuted last year at number one
on the Billboard Hot100 Singles chart, which tracks singles sold as opposed
to those played on the radio. This feat was indicative of the place Bright
Eyes had taken in the nationwide music scene -- this scared kid with a
guitar was fast becoming popular with fans and critics alike.
"Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground" (2002)
was a thick mess of folk songs and orchestral anthems chronicling the
songwriter's confusion about everything from girls to Jesus to politics to
drinking, and it cemented Bright Eyes' reputation as a creative force to be
The band, an ever-revolving cast of players supporting Oberst, graduated
from cult favorite to serious success story in 2004 with the simultaneous
release of the country-tinged "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning" and the brooding
yet danceable "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn."
Live, Bright Eyes is always gripping, whether touring solo or with a band.
Oberst's scared-kid persona is now tempered by a confidence that comes from
either years of experience or constant accolades from the press and adoring
fans. Whether you like his wounded, sensitive troubadour shtick or not, he's
only gotten better at what he does.
The mainstream success of Bright Eyes is, in part, also the triumph of
indie rock. While some of Oberst's peers have achieved a level of mainstream
success that warrants their being lured away from small, independent record
labels (Death Cab for Cutie and Rilo Kiley both spring to mind), Oberst has
reached the same, or even a higher, level of recognition while recording for
the Omaha, Neb., record label (Saddle Creek) he founded with his brother and
Sure, he's since moved to the East Village and was profiled in the New
Yorker and has dated Winona Rider, but his aesthetic has remained largely
unchanged; he is still, essentially, just a kid with a guitar, trying to
make sense of the world. There are just more people listening now.
Bright Eyes plays in the Kate Buchanan Room, HSU, on Monday. Flyers for the
show promise "songs from the entire Bright Eyes catalogue." Opening are
Scottish newcomers Sons and Daughters and Willy Mason. Tickets are $20 HSU
students and $22.50 general. For ticket information, call 826-3928.
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