Photo by Butch Hogan

As the leader and only constant in Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst is obviously
a gifted and precocious artist, and he’s quickly developing a reputation as a
major figure in popular music. I have no problem with that. But please, don’t
call him a great songwriter. So far, I’m only convinced that he’s very, very good.
Also note that precocious doesn’t mean the same thing as “young genius,”
a phrase that’s been bandied about with alarming regularity in the wake of his
two new albums, the folk-rock of I’m Wide Awake, It’s
Morning and the more rhythmic, electronic Digital Ash in
a Digital Urn.

Their simultaneous release has led to a sheaf of articles wondering, Is this man-child the voice of a generation? The answer to that question might be yes, but if so, it’s only partially about the music. The most impressive thing about Oberst certainly isn’t his songs. Yes, he’ll be only 25 on February 15 — a well-timed date for an artist so obsessed with heartbreak — but it’s easy to disprove the myth of his youthful achievements.

Let’s play a game called When I Was 25.

On the cusp of Bob Dylan’s 25th birthday, he had seven albums under his belt, including that first sustained burst of greatness: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Before Neil Young turned 25, he had cut three albums with Buffalo Springfield, three as a solo artist and further solidified his fan base by joining Crosby, Stills and Nash. That group’s folk-rock precursor, Simon & Garfunkel, had its first hit when the two members were 16, and its first culturally significant record, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., when they were 23. Conor Oberst, by contrast, has made six solo albums (one, a collection of juvenilia); three with earlier bands, Commander Venus and Park Ave. (the records have conveniently gone out of print); and one with current side project Desaparecidos (an undistinguished collection of thrashy rock). It should go without saying that Oberst’s records don’t belong on the same shelf.

Is this comparison fair? Well, of course it’s hard for anyone to measure up to a greatest-hits lineup of 20th-century folk-rock. The thing is, Oberst’s output seems decidedly minor even in the context of 2005’s culture at large. Much has been made of the fact that two singles, released in December on the label he owns, Saddle Creek, achieved an unprecedented indie-label feat, briefly occupying the top two slots of Billboard’s Hot 100 sales chart. (Above U2 and Alicia Keys!) That chart, however, has little to do with a song’s ubiquity or popularity. It doesn’t include radio play, and in terms of sales they were competing in a moribund singles market, impoverished by file sharing. Many majors barely release or promote the format for fear of encouraging piracy. Sales of the singles, “Lua” and “Take It Easy (Love Nothing),” amounted to about 9,000 apiece — impressive but hardly world-shattering.

More striking is the fact that Oberst’s two full-lengths cracked the Billboard Top 20 last week, selling a combined total of 100,000. But compare that to the release a week earlier of The Documentary, the debut of The Game, a.k.a. Jayceon Taylor, a 25-year-old protégé of Dr. Dre. It moved upward of 600,000 copies, more than the rest of the Top 10 combined.

It’s fair to say Oberst has approximately zero chance of attaining those numbers.

The best thing about him is he doesn’t much care.

Before we delve too deeply into what makes Oberst tick, it’s worth spending
a moment with his new records. The lesser album, Digital Ash in
a Digital Urn, is a genre effort. Like the country and
gospel records of Ray Charles and Bob Dylan, it’s a conscious attempt to work
within an unexpected style, in this case the beatcentric, indie dance-pop popularized
by the Rapture, the Postal Service, Franz Ferdinand and Oberst’s label mates the
Faint. Digital Ash features the drummer of the latter group as well
as a more prominent guest star, Nick Zinner, guitarist for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Zinner’s playing is muted where it’s usually emotionally striking and bold. The
way he declines to display his showstopping chops is consistent with the record’s
on-again, off-again conceit — the triumph of digital technology’s cool veneer
over the fear of death.

The grim reaper pops up again and again, both as a metaphor and literally, most notably in “Arc of Time,” which uses the word as a jaunty chorus over what sounds like synthesized steel drums. “You would die, you’d die, you’d die, you’d die,” Oberst sings, then repeats the line three more times. Spots like this, where he contrasts dark and light, are odd fun, like an indie-rock Bobby McFerrin screaming at us “Don’t worry, be happy!” Unfortunately, there are also schmaltzy violins (“Down in a Rabbit Hole,” “I Believe in Symmetry”) and schmaltzier synths (“Hit the Switch”) because, you know, death is also really important and stuff. “Ship in a Bottle” is more unfortunate. It features a crying baby alongside a rapid succession of come-ons. First Oberst wants to be “the surgeon that cuts you open,” then “the house that you were raised in” and, most cringeworthy, “your shower in the morning/That wakes you up and makes you clean.” You see, only Conor’s love can get you through the darkness of eternal night. Or something. Only one song actually pulls off what the rest of this set, uh, dances around. It’s that aforementioned single, “Take It Easy (Love Nothing),” which also happens to be the sole contribution from one of Oberst’s models, the Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello. It’s dramatic and goofy and sweet and insistent — like a long-lost outtake from a soundtrack to a John Hughes teen romance.

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is much better, 10 simple songs about moonlit musings, parties and kisses, drives through the night, and twilit mornings. Conor loves ’em, then he leaves ’em. Occasionally, he gets left behind. He wants you to know this touches him with sadness (the definition of insincerity because, in fact, he enjoys this dreamy, uncommitted routine). The lyrics to his 2002 effort, Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, were more clever because he examined the clichés behind this lifestyle. He wondered if he was a Method actor, fashioning a life around immature love affairs. But who the fuck cares? Metanarratives are for grad students. You listen to Bright Eyes because hearing about an extended adolescence is better than living through one, and Oberst’s lyrics on the topic are wistful and evocative, especially on “Landlocked Blues,” in which he wonders when this way of life might stop. (“I found a liquid cure/From my landlocked blues/It’ll pass away like a slow parade/It’s leaving but I don’t know how soon.”) Let’s just hope “how soon” is code for “my next record” because it’s been a while already. This song was initially released in 2003 on the Saddle Creek 50 compilation under a different title. Tricky.

What makes I’m Wide Awake inferior to Lifted is the music. Where the older record was messy and ambitious, like the first stage of a relationship, this album is unusually domestic. Five songs do without percussion, and it would be way too quiet and contained if it weren’t for producer Mike Mogis’ rich pedal steel and mandolin, and the stately vocal contributions of Emmylou Harris, 57, a figure from folk-rock’s golden age. Her clarion-clear harmonies are both welcome and distracting — welcome because they lend gravitas to the proceedings, distracting because they bring to mind the similar role she played on Gram Parson’s ’72 and ’73 solo albums, which turned her into a star. It’s another wink wink, nudge nudge that Oberst’s been blessed by his weighty progenitors, like October’s performances alongside Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. on the pro-Kerry Vote for Change tour. Aren’t young rockers supposed to kill their elders?

That brings me to why Conor Oberst is significant and needs to be heard. Contrary to reputation, indie rock has always been a tame beast. It’s not about killing your idols. It’s about standing on the shoulders of giants and reaching toward the same stars. In that way it’s an incremental art, like scientific research, or crafting a modern novel. Hand it to Oberst for valiantly trying to fit in the larger scheme of things without losing sight of what made him.

Right now he is to indie rock what Dylan was to the folk revival, what Madonna was to the faceless sound of dance music, what Kurt Cobain was to an earlier generation of alt-rock bands. He’s not a genius, but he has put a sexy package on a product that’s always been content to be underrated and anonymous. What makes Oberst different than even Zimmerman, Ciccone and Curt [sic] is that he shows no signs of wavering from his roots or his idyllic notions in the process of promoting that product. He wants to support his label and keep his friends, join a political cause and carry them all on his back to victory. He moved to New York City but doesn’t deny the importance of his birthplace, Omaha, Nebraska. That’s something special.

Let’s leave it at this: Conor Oberst has already made a number of good albums, I’m Wide Awake being one of them. Better yet, he has the potential, position and time to make a great one. That makes him a not-so-terrible spokesman for a generation of 16-year-old girls and boys who, as Katie Couric will tell you, believe — as Oberst does — in friends. With benefits. For now, it’s well worth being a fan of Conor. With reservations.

Bright Eyes plays February 11 at Spreckles Theater in San Diego and February
12—14 at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. All shows with Neva Dinova and Jesse
Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter.

LA Weekly