The People's Key
Author: Rod Liddle
2/6/11 | London Sunday Times | www.thesundaytimes.co.uk | Feature
Conor Oberst, America's best songwriter in decades, crafts the mostheartbreaking melodies since Neil Young. Will he become one of the greats?--The great pop groups tend to come from our inner cities ? the bigger and more febrile the city, the better. The great singer-songwriters, however, come from wide open spaces, areas of almost insurmountable boredom and silence, towns where there is nothing: the Great Plains and the Prairies. Places where there is nothing to disturb the imagination, and where, in winter, it is unconscionably cold and bereft. Bob Dylan from Hibbing, Minnesota, a small and frozen plains town where he once failed to win a talent contest. Neil Young lying on his back, being beaten up in the schoolyard in Winnipeg, Manitoba. And Conor Oberst, the best songwriter to emerge from America in 30 or 40 years, the man described by Jonathan Franzen in his latest novel as a "boy genius", not least because he created a record label at the age of 12 ? but hell, what else is there to do in Great Plains Central, Omaha, Nebraska, when you're a kid? Or an adult, for that matter.The boring, sprawling, strip-mall and fast-food hell of Omaha, and its endless, featureless surrounds maybe played a part in the development of a singer who is the equal of Dylan and Young, and perhaps has the talent to goeven further.It is -20C when I catch a cab to the studio where Oberst's sometime band, Bright Eyes, have recorded their latest album, a white suburban house in a white suburban town. He is sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of salad leaves, as you might expect from someone who has become a poster boy for America's greenish left. Black hair across the face, elegantly scruffy, somewhat less elfin and more substantial than previous media appearances might have suggested. The latest album from Bright Eyes, The People's Key, will disturb some of his alt-country and Americana fans ? it is full-on pop, his most obviously accessible and inventive record, packed with more than usually melodic hooks, krautrock rhythms and synthesizers ? what was once called power-pop. The only pedal-steel guitar to be heard is so treated by his collaborator Mike Mogis in the studio that it doesn't sound at all like a pedal-steel guitar."I don't know what Americana is, it's just some sort of vague aesthetic," Oberst says, affable and articulate, brewing a cup of coffee at the stove. It's time for reinvention, to move away a little from the plaintive vocal and acoustic guitar. "I admire people like Bowie, Young and maybe Beck, who have the ability to go out on a limb, to reinvent themselves."He talks about how he felt surrounded by a set of "boring musical constraints", and that it would have been a disservice to fans to have continued in the same style, "painting by numbers". Yet there was not much about the last Bright Eyes album, Cassadega, that was alt-country, if we're honest, aside from its signature tune, Four Winds.The People's Key is released on Oberst's 31st birthday, a birthday that worries him a little, seeing as he has been young for so long. The boy genius, who was hanging around older kids and recording his own songs right from the age of 12, changes the subject nervously and takes me on a tour of the Saddle Creek recording studios instead. He has been on the cusp of lasting brilliance for a long time now ? his recent collaborative project, Monsters of Folk, and a solo album, Conor Oberst, are, along with Cassadega, the best stuff I have heard coming out of America for decades. The lyrics tend to get him the attention, because he has a fine vocabulary and is acutely observant, but in truth it is his melodic imagination that most impresses. He writes very good songs ? there has not been a more heartbreaking or uplifting song than Danny Callaghan (off his solo album with the Mystic Valley Band) since Neil Young's Helpless. And, clever and considered though the lyrics are, it is the unexpected melodic shifts that give the song its power to move. Yet 31 is a difficult age, time to stake a claim, to show people you're not going to just disappear. Oberst is aware of this, even if he does tend to dismiss notions of pop music being "a career". He says he bumped into the singer Cyndi Lauper at an airport recently. "She said to me, 'Growing old sucks.' She had green hair."The musical influences, he says, came from his parents, and especially his dad, who played in a local covers band, doing the American heartland rock thing ? "whatever was around at the moment". At the Oberst home, his parents listened to stuff like Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Paul Simon, whom Conor still reveres. It is a slight surprise, this: Browne does not have the lyrical depth, Simon lacks the musical depth and James Taylor has neither the musical nor lyrical depth of what you can hear on The People's Key. But there we are: you can't choose your parents' musical taste. As a kid, his favourite band were the Cure, the evidence of which is apparent on his latest album ? those nods to krautrock and the now fashionable musical melange that emerged out of the death of punk rock at the tail end of the 1970s.His lyrics draw criticisms of pretentiousness, of too much introspection. He is seen in some quarters as being a little too good to be true, raging against materialism and the absence of the spiritual, whipping up the Democrat vote alongside the likes of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, the kid with his own record company and club and apartment complex in downtown Omaha. Yet his lyrics are focused and never doctrinaire, and he deserves more praise than opprobrium for Saddle Creek Records and its attendant club in Omaha. He confesses to having "certain issues" with the strongly Republican state where he was raised, and says: "I hardly ever come here now. I spend most of my time in Manhattan, which seems to me one of the few places where people are not judged according to the colour of their skin or what they want to do." He is not terribly disillusioned with Obama, cleaving to the notion that the president is probably best for right now, although he confesses an admiration for the radical green independent Ralph Nader.The attacks on his lyrical concerns seem hugely misplaced to me. If nothing else, he has a beautiful command of the language and an ear for a clever metaphor, such as this wonderful description of a singer who has sold out and is playing to the highest bidder: "Just like the soul singer in the session band/Shredded confetti beneath the microphone stand/See the conflict of interest slipping cash in the hand/The soul singer in the session band." That is just terrific writing, supple and brilliant ?although Oberst won't tell me who it's about, who that "soul" singer is. "I feel bad about it," he says. "It's about a woman who is very talented, but surrounded herself with bland people, just didn't..." I press, as journalists are supposed to, but he still won't tell. Then there's the genuine heartbreak that attends to the last verse of Danny Callaghan, about a child Oberst saw outside a supermarket: "Even western medicine/ Couldn't save Danny Callaghan/Bad bone marrow, a bald little boy/But the love he feels he carries inside can be passed/He lay still his mother kissed him goodbye/Said come back, where are you going to, alone?"The critics miss a sense of mischief, too. Oberst laughs, supping on his coffee. "Yes, they never get the sense of humour. I don't know why." It is evident again on the new album, together with a laudable f***-you attitude to his CD-buying public. Woven throughout the album are the spoken words of a certain Denny Brewer, who emanates from some wasteland where Texas turns into Mexico, long and funny monologues about a race of reptilian humans who do the bad stuff in the world. "Denny Brewer is this man I met when we were recording an album with the Mystic Valley Band, a sort of part shaman, in a band called Refried Ice Cream ? you should check them out. And he talked to me, and a lot of these ideas germinated from these conversations. I think he's done a lot of acid...""He's sort of like Roky Erickson?" I ask."That would be an excellent shorthand description of Denny. But some of those ideas, that there are these people who are essentially cold and become stronger by sucking everyone else dry. I don't think they are reptiles and they may not start out cold."It is typical of Oberst to make a hugely accessible album, then dilute its accessibility by weaving throughout it the ramblings of a whacked-out acid casualty. His 2007 single, Four Winds, was hugely catchy, but missed out on mainstream radio play as a consequence of repeated references to the Whore of Babylon; this, I suppose, is one of the benefits of being the boss of your own record label. And the stuff with Brewer works, whether you smile along indulgently or subscribe entirely, in the manner of David Icke. It is a recurring theme, for Oberst, this need to squeeze spirituality from the world without recourse to the dogma of organised religion.The People's Key might be the last album Oberst makes under the heading Bright Eyes, and with band members Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis ? and thenagain, it might not. Earlier statements to the press seemed to suggest Oberst had had enough, but he drew back a little from that position when talking to me, suggesting that he had been, if not misquoted, then perhaps misinterpreted. In any case, he collaborates with scores of different people (almost always including the producer and guitarist Mogis), so the putting to rest of one or another franchise shouldn't bother us unduly. As long as those wonderful songs keep coming.The People's Key is released on Polydor on February 14.--More from Saddle CreekRod Liddle picks out three more fine bands from Conor Oberst's fertile label, Saddle Creek Records, to listen toThe MynabirdsThey aim to be "like Neil Young doing soul music". Having heard Mr Young do soul music I'm not sure that's a great idea, but still this is rich creamy white soul. Like Carole King doing soul music. Download The Numbers Don't Lie from What We Lose In The Fire We Gain in the Flood, which was presumably aimed at the Australian market.Azure RayIf you remember Mazzy Star, then this lot, from REM's home town of Athens, Georgia, are a bit like Mazzy Star except with better tunes and less stupid lyrics. Try Look To Me from the last album Hold On Love.CursiveLongtime Saddle Creek artists led by the talented and underrate Tim Kasher. The new stuff sounds to me a little like those old Scottish bands, Josef K or the Fire Engines, but I suspect they haven't even heard them. Try From The Hips from the new album Mama, I'm Swollen.