Reviews

Noise Floor

Author: Brian Howe
10/23/2006 | Pitchforkmedia.com | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
This isn't the first time Bright Eyes has released an album of time-capsuled errata. 2000's A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 gathered up the grainy juvenilia predating his debut album, 1998's Letting Off the Happiness. It found the young Oberst sowing the bitter seeds he would raise to a dark crop on 2000's pivotal Fevers and Mirrors-- his last truly hermetic album, before the sociopolitical world came rushing in-- only to burn the harvest and start from scratch with forays into trad country and digital pop on subsequent albums.

Confined to a shorter time period than Noise Floor, in which Oberst was just establishing his perennial motifs-- fevers, dreams, mirrors, calendars, wine, women, medication, entrapment, stasis, and fate-- Collection was fairly homogenous. But Noise Floor's B-sides, singles, compilation tracks, and sundry rarities span a period of extended transition for Oberst. While the album isn't arranged chronologically, listening to it as such reveals the series of intuitive leaps between lo-fi bedroom folk that emphasized monotonous gloom and cacophonous samples to comparatively laid-back country biased toward majestic arrangements and electronic beats.

The earliest entries favor naked dirges and apolitical self-pity, privileging immediacy over polish. 1999's "The Vanishing Act" is a gray blur of rickety acoustic guitar and discordant piano on which Oberst wallows in the well of despair with the romantic relish of someone who's yet to reach its bottom. 2000's "Soon You Will Be Leaving Your Man" upgrades to a fluid, reverbed guitar pulse, but retains the breathy and almost tuneless vocals Oberst favored in that era, as well as his shorthand for authenticity-- palpably twanging strings, accidental harmonics, and ambient crowd chatter. 2000's "Mirrors and Fevers", which is two full minutes of crowd noise followed by one minute of a capella singing, isn't much of a song, but it works as an album opener-- Oberst's trapped-under-ice imagery and musings on inevitability handily establish the album's mise en scène.

But as early as 2001's excellent "I Will Be Grateful for This Day", we can detect a shift in Oberst's songwriting. With its melting vocal line, staticky mechanical drums, and humming synths, the song predicts Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, yet doesn't bog down in pretensions as that album sometimes does. Not musically, anyway-- Oberst's lyrics always tread the thin line between sublimely maudlin and banally maudlin; "Grateful" subjects us to the latter with a protracted metaphor about trying to play someone's heartbeat on the drums. 2001 doesn't appear to have been a great creative year for Oberst-- "Bad Blood", co-written with the Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle, is so thin and inessential. The quavering vocals and barely intimated chord shapes of "I've Been Eating (For You)" are promising enough until one listens to the lyrics, which plumb unintentionally comical depths of self-obsession and strained metaphor, with a ridiculous girl-as-basketball metaphor. "Happy Birthday to Me (Feb. 15)" is much better, with its woozy slides and twinkling piano, not to mention the emphatic swearing, spontaneous shouting, and nauseous vibrato Oberst was already starting to phase out for the more mannered urgencies of Lifted and beyond.

It's exactly these kinds of emotionally febrile outbursts that Bright Eyes detractors hate, and they continue to flare up even amid more recent, polemical songs, like 2003's jangly "Trees Get Wheeled Away" and the ragged sing-along "Drunk Kid Catholic". Yet the same affectations that repel some are what makes this music speak to so many. To embrace Bright Eyes, it helps to have friends with whom playing music is just the emulsion of your mutual love, or to intuit and long for this experience, which always sounds trite, with an uncool hippie-ish quality, until you're the one joyously banging out a chord on an acoustic guitar. Maybe this self-indulgent spontaneity doesn't translate to tape if you aren't predisposed to appreciate it. Fair enough. But it's precisely what makes Bright Eyes fans overlook his excesses and missteps, this sense of being a part of a special moment governed more by intuition than intellect. And for better or worse (better if you think this stuff about love and special moments sounds silly, worse if you don't), it's what is diminishing as Oberst's music accumulates polish and orchestral weight.
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