Reviews

Fevers and Mirrors

Author: Will Robinson Sheff
12/21/2000 | Audio Galaxy | www.audiogalaxy.com | Feature
Knowing that the surest way for a reviewer to win over today's fickle internet readership is to drop an Emily Dickinson quote in the very first paragraph, that's just what I'll do. To wit, she once wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

There's no better description of Bright Eyes. At 20, Nebraskan Conor Oberst has spent the last 7 years writing skull-opening music. Under the name Bright Eyes, the "band" that is often just him and whomever's in the room, Oberst is almost single-handedly redeeming the "folk-rock" and "singer-songwriter" genres by an approach that is the artistic equivalent of burning them alive to remove all the bad parts. Stripped down and raw, his folk-rock songs sound like your most desperate emotions - depression, despondency, manic fear, raw desire, and unrequited true love - magnified to almost unbearable levels and gilded in gold leaf.
"His songs sound like your most desperate emotions... magnified... and gilded in gold leaf."

This is decidedly, and defiantly, not background music. Though Fevers and Mirrors, the newest Bright Eyes album, is musically beguiling chamber-pop ear candy, glimmering with vibes, pedal steel, mellotron, and flutes, Oberst's fearless tunneling into depression undermines any attempts at toe-tapping. Strangely, though, the relentless darkness of the album is the opposite of numbing. Fevers and Mirrors makes you feel wholly alive, in a way that almost no contemporary music can. These songs make you feel alive the way you did in high school, when every emotion was so epic it seemed like it was going to swallow you, when you were an ugly, squirming knot of humanity, tossed here and there by opposing emotions made almost indistinguishable by their sheer intensity.
Fevers and Mirrors

In many ways, Fevers and Mirrors skulks around in the same territory as uber-brooders the Cure, but the album manages to retain all the power of its mopey forefathers while emerging untouched by their excesses. This is mainly due to Oberst's superlative songwriting: he is simply one of the best lyricists working today (in the company of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum and even superior to Elliott Smith), and one of the only lyricists who has ever come close to delivering on the promise of rock music as poetry. All the overblown emotions that might seem laughably cliched in anyone else's songs are perfectly pinned, live and squirming, by Oberst's poetic, precise phrasing. Many people have written songs about being dumped, but only "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh" turns the process into a procession, with Oberst's voice quavering, "Thank you and hang up the phone. Let the funeral start. Hear the casket close. Let's pin split-black ribbons to your overcoat." On "A Perfect Sonnet," from the Bright Eyes e.p. "Every Day, Every Night," Oberst has this to say about love: "I believe that lovers should be chained together, thrown into a fire with their songs and letters and left there to burn in their arrogance."
"This is decidedly, and defiantly, not background music."

These lyrics, blunt and powerful on the page, palpably bleed when Oberst sings them. His voice recalls that of Robert Smith or Radiohead's Thom Yorke in that it sounds like he's struggling to get the words out while holding back a scream, or tears. Pain is so audible in Oberst's voice, in fact, that it sometimes distracts from the fact that his songs are ultimately less about pain than they are just about emotion - naked, embarrassing, vulnerable, overwhelmed emotion. The same voice that sings, "I drug your ghost across the country and we plotted out my death" also raises up high to gasp "Oh, love is real! It is not just in long-distance commercials…It will follow you everywhere you go." This thin line between joy and depression is best illustrated in the breathtaking "Something Vague," in which, from a standard monologue about hopelessness and boredom, Oberst's voice suddenly soars into a shaky scream as he describes his narrator's recurring dream of "hang[ing]…on air…like a star," with his family standing around him. The moment is so beautiful its hard to tell what it means, but I think what it means can best be approximated in words by what Ms. Dickinson said above. Oberst's poetry makes you feel something stilling and visceral and beyond classification - what it's like being alive, in a world of horrific pain and transcendent beauty.
Fevers and Mirrors

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