Fevers and Mirrors
You know the deal: You find yourself in a state of disrepair, and you go looking for the cure in plastic, be it 12 inches of vinyl or five inches of encoded foil encased in a clear plastic veneer. Either way, it's all waiting out there for you to find: a cure for what ails ya, the song or album that provides empathy and somehow makes everything all right for a little while.
Somehow, the most meaningful ones always seem to magically appear when you most need them. If pressed I could produce the history of my life as a span of these sacred texts accompanied by music.
The first time I felt this true kinship was when I read Lester Bangs' piece on Astral Weeks by Van Morrison: "Astral Weeks," the article, published in Stranded in 1979, is, as Bangs makes clear from the start, a review of an album "released ten years, almost to the day, before (it) was written." Just as Lester did, I discovered Astral Weeks at a time of personal disconsolation. He was "a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind"; for me, the same: the breakup of my first love and myself.
Bangs continues: "But the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk. ... I don't really know how significant it might be that others have reported variants on my initial encounter with Astral Weeks. I don't thing there's anything guiding it to people enduring dark periods."
I, of course, would disagree. As I said before, my life experience has been that whenever I truly need that beacon of light it miraculously appears. The album finds me. That's exactly why I've never given up my hope in rock and roll as a saving force in a life that ebbs and flows just like any other.
My life; my murky depths. Which brings us, finally, to the subject of this article.
Just as other band-named individuals (especially Smog, Cat Power, and Palace) helped me along in days of darkness, Bright Eyes' Fevers and Mirrors (Saddle Creek, 2000) came along at just the right time. The Bright Eyes nom de plume belongs to one Conors Oberst, who seemingly employs anyone around to guest on his records (previous appearances by Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal members would lead you to believe he's a fellow Elephant 6er, but that semi-ubiquitous logo is nowhere to be found).
Fans of Elliot Smith and Smog and Neutral Milk Hotel and Cat Power and Vic Chesnutt and any other songwriter that can break your heart with a line will adopt this document like the heartcrusher it is. The guy isn't even old enough for you to buy him a beer, but he'll provide the salve for your wounds, in the most spiritual sense. Indeed, at his quieter moments, Oberst echoes a slightly-edgier, less Beatles-influenced Smith, but allows his voice to curdle with his angst into heart-rattling outbursts of sheer exorcism before lulling you back into sumbmision. It gets no less affecting each time it's experienced.
The album opens with a child reading a storybook--with help on the big words from an older guardian--before melding into "A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever and A Necklace," a gorgeously lulling melody anchored in a crumbling relationship and its resulting self-doubt ("And they made me a necklace / Hanging beads of sweat / On a string of my regrets ... And maybe the sun keeps coming up 'cause it's gotten used to you and your constant need for proof").
Next up is the march-like dirge "A Scale, A Mirror and Those Indifferent Clocks," with its lush imagery of regret: "These blurs come in random order / And they color the eyes of your former lovers / Hers were green like July / Except when she cried / They were red."
"The Calendar Hung Itself" is a choppily percussive ode to jealousy ("Does he know that place below your neck that's your favorite to be touched / And does he cry through broken sentences like 'I love you far too much'?"). It recalls one of those Neutral Milk Hotel songs that speeds by so quickly that the singer can barely fit the words into each line. Plus Oberst tosses in snippets of Hank Williams' "You Are My Sunshine" and vintage keyboards to boot.
"Something Vague" is a gorgeously chilling retelling of a dream that prompts Oberst's voice to blood-curdling heights of angst.
Oberst's forte is plumbing the depths of the murky human condition so empathetically that his words and melodies somehow become transcendently joyous. Fevers and Mirrors is, to be sure, a "mood album," but if you're in that kind of a mood, it will feel so utterly comfortable and comforting that you can't imagine listening to anything else.
If you're in the mood, pick it up; if not, you just wait: It will probably find you when you most need it.
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