I know that I’m not the only person for whom Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes meant a hell of a lot growing up. I know this because I’ve spoken to people and heard them tell of all the Bright Eyes songs that felt perfectly synched up to their lives at any given particular teenage moment. I know because I’ve read chat forums and music website comment sections where Bright Eyes comes up time and again. And, most of all, I know because I know – these are songs that, in the cold comfort of a curtains-drawn room, in those private moments of earphones and memo pads, it’s possible to feel like Oberst is speaking both to you and the whole world at the same time.
At the age of just 12, Oberst was invited onstage by Ted Stevens and was recognised for his precocious talent. By the time he started the Bright Eyes project at the age of fifteen, he’d already been in four different bands. Early Bright Eyes releases had a strong DIY aesthetic, violently rough around the edges with Oberst at the centre, always at the centre, sounding often angry and on-edge, ready at any moment to implode. These were songs stripped of artifice and pretension that still sought to scale the heights of the globe. Even when he found massive success later and let his whims take him in many disparate directions, that sense never escaped him. The bedroom met the basement and it never sounded so anthemic.
Oberst is commonly referred to as a singer-songwriter, and indeed it is his lyricism that attracts many fans to his oeuvre. Oberst is never one to shy away from a grand theme or an extended metaphor. That exact same sense of grandeur existed in equal parts on songs where he sketched the quiet tales of a narrative ‘I’ as it did on his grandly political concept album LIFTED or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. His brilliant grasp of both the personal and the political, and the common ground on which they so often meet, is what made him the voice of a generation for so many.
Oberst has a massive canon in all. 2011’s The People’s Key was the eighth and final Bright Eyes album. As such, picking a top ten is not an easy task. Further, it is here an intensely personal one. I have tried to be ‘objective’ (what exactly that means in this context is a topic for a different article), but obviously my list will lack one or two songs that yours might have had, just as it will contain one or two songs that you might never have considered. That’s the nature of lists. If someone shoots me for this, well then, at least I’ve inspired some passion. Oberst would be proud.
10 – ‘The Calendar Hung Itself’ off Fevers & Mirrors
Arriving early on Fever and Mirrors, ‘The Calendar Hung Itself’ is a shot in the arm combining angst-ridden lyrics with shrill and catchy hooks and a delivery so tense it could be snapped in half. Through tales of jilted love and attempted suicide and subversions of the classic Americana songbook, Oberst manages to convey the earth-shattering sense of first heartbreak. Oberst is never short of a poetic lyric, and they’re all on full display in this song.
9 – ‘Four Winds’ off Cassadaga
Cassadaga was the second-to-last Bright Eyes album and the first clear sign that maybe this project wouldn’t last forever. Strangely enough, it happened on an album where Oberst was continuing to broaden his sound and his thematic range. The angst, ego-driven kid hadn’t been vanquished, but more often it was reigned in, giving voice to the wizened adult. The problem is that Cassadaga lacked the urgency of his earlier work, be felt in the music where lo-fi guitars are often replaced with more traditional folk instruments like banjos and violins. ‘Four Winds’ is a sign that, no matter how his career might seem, Oberst is always able to conjure up a profound statement. The song is infused with religious imagery, as all the great religions are invoked and torn down in favour of a more intimate and ultimately inclusive spirituality. It’s a grand ride of a song that manages to achieve its four-minute goal of Powerful Statement.
8 – ‘We Are Nowhere And It’s Now’ off I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Oberst manages to remain hopeful here, despite the despair all around. The song reaches a climax at the end where he sings: “She took a small silver wreath and pinned it onto me / She said this one will bring you love / And I don’t know if it’s true, but I keep it for good luck.”
7 – ‘Lover I Don’t Have To Love’ off LIFTED or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
‘Lover I Don’t Have To Love’ is the cold centre of LIFTED. Similar to the characters in Antonioni’s L’Avventura, there is no love here, nor is there any hope for it. “I poured some wine, I asked your name, you asked the time,” he sings. Oberst and his nameless, faceless partners are bored, using empty sex to try and puncture in some feeling, but it is to no avail.
6 – ‘First Day Of My Life’ off I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was released on the same day as Digital Ash In A Digital Urn. Two songs, one from each of those albums, that appear higher up this list got to number 1 and 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart at the same time, the first time an artist had done that for seven years. ‘First Day Of My Life’ didn’t scale the heights of those tracks, but it might eventually have become equally as ubiquitous through its appearance in movies and television series. It is perhaps the sweetest and simplest song of Oberst’s career, the one time he sounds perfectly happy and content. It’s a wonderful extended moment.
5 – ‘If Winter Ends’ off Letting Off The Happiness
Letting Off The Happiness is the second Bright Eyes album and was recorded with members of Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal. ‘If Winter Ends’ is a discordant ditty about “falling for the promise of a life with a purpose”. At the age of eighteen, his angst sounded world weary, even as it was vibrant and raw, with him urging an unnamed someone to lie to him and say, repeatedly, “It’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be alright.”
4 – ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved)’ off LIFTED or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Oberst has frequently been compared to Bob Dylan. On the one hand, that’s an incredibly unfair comparison to make. There are very few artists alive, if any, who can live up to the standard set by Dylan. But there is something about it that still seems fitting to me. He is, perhaps, what Dylan might have been if he had grown up in the Reagan years, found his feet in an America booming through the actualised lie of the Clinton years and then shook up by the Bush administration. Oberst’s boundless lyrics, his fractured delivery and his constantly shifting style are all reminiscent of Dylan. Who’s to say a modern-day Dylan would have had the staying power he was allowed a few decades prior? Clocking in at over ten minutes, ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves’ is proudly Dylan-esque in its ambition, clocking in at ten minutes and weaving tales of self-inflicted hospitalisation with brash political statements. It might not be the most cohesive Bright Eyes song, but it is one of the best.
3 – ‘Something Vague’ off Fevers & Mirrors
The single acoustic guitar that opens ‘Something Vague’ sounds forlorn from its second chord change and the song remains that way right until the last note. Oberst opens with the lines: “Now and again it seems worse than it is / But mostly the view is accurate.” The style Oberst employs on this would later be perfected on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, but on that record, the mood feels five shades lighter than this, even at its darkest. It is only on that last note that the mood relents, vagueness here standing perhaps for total ambivalence. This is Oberst at his uncertain finest.
2 – ‘Take It Easy (Love Nothing)’ off Digital Ash In A Digital Urn
This song could be read as a self-referential dig. It is structured so that each verse represents a different part of a one-day relationship from the uncomfortable but beautiful beginning to the sudden, unexpected and painful end to the ultimate resolve never to go through it all again. The first verse even contains a reference to ‘First Day Of My Life’. Oberst has made a career out of mining his own contradictory feelings about love and loving, and here he puts it all on one brilliantly-constructed song that is by far the best thing off Digital Ash. It’s the circle of Oberst’s life, and it consistently warrants multiple repeats.
1 – ‘Lua’
I’m going to give away my youth here and say that ‘Lua’ is the first Bright Eyes song I ever heard. I’m not sure if it was fate or Seth Cohen that landed me here, but from the first time I heard Oberst’s uneasily tranquil (or tranquilised) voice, I was hooked. “You’re lookin’ skinny like a model with your eyes all painted black / You just keep going to the bathroom, always say you’ll be right back,” he sings on a song that ponders addiction and substance abuse in one of the biggest cities in the world. Various substances are referenced, counted off on fingers too subdued to be lifted in resistance. At its heart, though, it’s a song about the impossible weight of love in a world more suited to loneliness. It is a subtle cry emanating from one of his most subdued songs, and it remains his most powerful statement to date.