Reviews

Fevers and Mirrors

Author: Daniel Piotrowski
10/31/2000 | Metro Times | www.metrotimes.com | Live Show Preview
Conor Oberst, the 20-year-old singer/songwriter behind the Bright Eyes moniker, admits he's a "sucker for sad songs."

"I always have been," he says over the phone during a break from the band's current tour. "There's some kind of truth there that I've connected with. Ideally, that's what people can get out of [my songs]."

Oberst's brand of gut-wrenching, emotional folk is not just a bunch of sad, sad songs; it paints a looming gloom full of despair, depression, and dysfunction. The new Fevers and Mirrors (released on Saddle Creek Records, an indie label based in the singer's hometown of Omaha, Neb.) is Oberst's best and bleakest effort to date. Using the thematic elements of pain and self-reflection, his songs have become more coherent, with better lyrical structure and more atmospheric instrumentation, transforming teen angst into philosophical revelation.

Oberst's songs deal specifically and honestly with his own battles with depression. It's hard to ignore the urgency in verses such as, "I'm standing on a bridge in the town where I lived as a kid with my mom and my brothers/ And then the bridge disappears/ And I'm standing on air/ With nothing holding me," from "Something Vague" or, "So don't leave me here with only mirrors watching me," from "Arienette." (Those picking up a copy of Fevers and Mirrors are forced into self-examination before even listening. The album's cover art frames an actual mirror, made of reflective plastic.)

Although Oberst has made Bright Eyes his full-time occupation since January 1999, when he dropped out of the University of Nebraska, he began recording and releasing his own songs when he was 13. Bright Eyes wouldn't begin in earnest, however, until after Oberst's high school band, Commander Venus (co-led by Cursive frontperson Tim Kasher), broke up.

At first, Oberst took the four-track route, self-recording his songs at home and compiling tapes of the material, in the same way fellow Omaha native Simon Joyner started his career. Oberst's first albums were released by Saddle Creek in 1998 one CD of early, self-recorded material (the just-reissued A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997) and an album of studio and better-quality basement recordings (Letting Off the Happiness).

Last year's Every Day and Every Night EP proved to be the watershed release for Bright Eyes. Over a mere five tracks (including Oberst's best tune yet, "A Perfect Sonnet"), it showed improved coherence and production quality the previous records did not, highlighting Oberst's pleading singing and his ability to string together long, complex verses. The even more accomplished Fevers and Mirrors was recorded by Mike Mogis and Andy Lemaster over the course of a month in late 1999, with help from members of Cursive and Lullaby for the Working Class and others. (Oberst considers Mogis and Lemaster "permanent members" of his band, though they rarely perform with the ever-shifting touring version of Bright Eyes.)

Fevers and Mirrors also makes it hard to interview the Bright Eyes frontperson, because the definitive Oberst interview is included between the last two songs on the album. An obviously phony college-radio Q&A session pits Oberst against an aloof DJ who insists that the new album is brilliant "We get lots of calls," the DJ says. As the DJ and the reluctant interviewee spar, the bit becomes a wry comment on the awkwardness of the interview process, especially when the DJ asks, "Well, you mentioned depression?" and Oberst (or rather, a friend imitating the singer for the interview) replies, "No, I didn't."

The tongue-in-cheek dialogue reveals Oberst's hitherto unsuspected sense of humor, while offering an opportunity to discuss the reoccurring themes of the albums, simplifying the fevers, mirrors, scales, and such that crop up throughout the songs. He explains that at first the skit was designed as "breathing room" before the album closer, "A Song to Pass the Time," a track that is thematically and structurally different from the rest of the new songs. But the snippet turned into more. "[It's] a way to give helpful information in regards to the theme, but also make fun of everything about it," says Oberst, acknowledging, "It's definitely a self-serving, pretentious record."

Not all listeners have gotten the new album's comedic episode. "People tend to think that all you are is your songs," Oberst says. "There's more to me than just that part."

"I have good times and I have friends," he says. "Being depressed is something I've always struggled with. I never really thought of people listening to the music I made before I kind of just made it."
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