but mostly just bitches about his personal experience with Bright Eyes
IDC i still love him, and MVB is amazing,
especially Cape Canaveral and Lenders in the Temple
Between constant plays of the great new Laura Marling album and finding this interesting bit of worthy navel-gazing by Salon's Judy Berman on loving and leaving Conor Oberst fandom, I've been thinking about the music of 18-year-olds lately. That's the beginning of that sweet spot of post-high school wanderlust where you're old enough to understand your taste and listen widely, but still malleable and sensitive enough to get your mind blown. I've often wondered if the music you fall for between 18 and 22 is hard-wired to be the only music you really love in that insane, possessive, identity-crafting way for the rest of your life. Do we lose our capacity to be devastated by art as adults? What does it mean when you stop listening to the songs that sent ice up your spine at that age -- does that make your youthful music lust irrelevant today, or is all art meant to have a time and place you're supposed to grow out of?
The English author Lavinia Greenlaw explores all this with much more grace, eloquence and insight than I ever could muster in her exquisite book "The Importance of Music to Girls." Like Berman, I had my own intense infatuation with Oberst's music around the same age she seems to be talking about. I can hear the collective groan going up across Soundboard headquarters right now, but yes, I had a few dozen long nights of the soul, pulling from a flask of bad scotch and wandering the empty streets of my southern college town with Fevers & Mirrors on my iPod. I'd make laps from one end of downtown to the other, kicking lampposts and checking if the lights were still on in my ex-girlfriend's apartment, until I'd black out on a park basketball court or somewhere similarly poignant. If you're familiar with the record, it was all quite apropos.
But the interesting thing that Berman didn't quite follow up on isn't on how much Oberst's music has changed since Fevers -- it's how she might have changed since then. You can make a convincing argument that Oberst was more "authentic" before he took on more traditional folk imagery (one I'd personally disagree with), but I posit that the problem isn't Oberst's changing aesthetics, but that one's brain chemistry is aching for powerful impressions at that age, and Oberst's severe, intense charisma could leave a profound one on a sad-eyed post-adolescent.
There's something to the particular reverb on the vibraphone that Bright Eyes' producer Mike Mogis put on "Haligh, Haligh," coupled with the feral, shivery way Oberst chews through even pleasant lyrics about getting dressed for school, that's like a dog whistle to those fresh out of one's parents' house. That may also explain the hate Oberst got from older and ostensibly more tasteful audiences: like Phil Spector's, Oberst's early music is written for the teenage ear (in this case, also his own), and all the flailing and screaming over something menial like an ex seeing another dude may not be necessarily meant for demographically wide consumption. But at that time, it feels accurate to those in the thick of it, and that's what may be more important and potent about it.
Then came "Lifted," the beginning of Oberst's climb into articulate, nuanced and certainly superior songwriting. I've really enjoyed a lot of Oberst's music after that, even the much-maligned "Digital Ash" album, but nothing since "Fevers" has moved me to such histrionics. But then again, nothing else in my life seems to either. Nick Hornby once wrote an essay about not liking Suicide anymore because the world turned out to be scarier than "Frankie Teardrop," but I don't think that's it -- some part of me is still craving music that gets me to that place, even if it's all just rooted in teenage hysterics and amateur booze-hounding. Those years are sort of the last time in your life you're allowed to openly need guidance about how to process vague and enormous adult emotions. I guess the tragedy and complexity of maturing is that eventually you're supposed to have it somewhat figured out, even if you don't.
That might be why there's still "Breakfast with the Beatles" or Dinosaur Jr. tours happening in 2008. People need to be reminded that they're allowed to be confused and frightened and in need of signposts to navigate emotions, and there's a kind of reassurance in a favorite song from that age. But I don't know why it seems to be so hard to find new examples of that after one's early-20s. At some point, you can understand an album as "powerful" without killing a handle of Jameson in alms to it. I turned 25 last week, so I suppose it's too soon to tell. I find myself mostly listening to both experimental electronica and gigantic mainstream radio-pop these days, which I guess is a blunt metaphor for this changing of needs. Eventually, you come to want subtlety, maturity and capability in music (especially after sharing a bed with someone in the throes of early-Oberstian melodrama). But we also search for reminders that profound emotions are valid and imperative without having to process them again firsthand. Music necessarily becomes externalized, a reflection of culture rather than of yourself.
I met Oberst once at the El Rey. I was interviewing him for a magazine and we talked in an alley behind the theater right before "Cassadaga" came out. He was incredibly friendly and thoughtful in his answers, and seeing those famously dewy eyes up close reminded me of how, seven years ago, I craved the wild, extravagant intensity of those songs in my own emotional life. I saw myself in them. I don't anymore, and I don't think he does either. I haven't listened to Bright Eyes in probably a year, and I don't feel a huge need to buy his new solo album even though I know it's probably great. And even though my critic-lizard brain knows that Fevers is cloying, it still sounds spectacular to me. I fully suspect that the theremin swell on the second chorus of "The Calendar Hung Itself" will make my hair stand a bit for the rest of my life, and that reminds me that those songs did their job. They carried me into whatever sliver of adulthood I'm standing in now. I guess the best compliment I can pay them is that I don't need them anymore.
-- August Brown