...untrustworthy, confused, touching and idiotically ambitious...
How much does Conor Oberst really suffer for his art? When this compelling, self-conscious and exceptionally long album ends, it’s hard to tell what Oberst, 22 years old and Bright Eyes‘ unsteady pivot, actually feels. Is this country emo or student theatre? A grand, wracked emotional struggle or just the creative appropriation of other people’s misery? And does it matter either way?
Probably not. But on this, his fifth prodigious album as Bright Eyes, Oberst is obsessed with the ambiguity. “Some sad singers, they just play tragic,” he notes bitterly on ‘Lover I Don’t Have To Love’. Welcome, then, Omaha, Nebraska’s authentically post-modern miseryguts: a singer-songwriter who doesn’t just sound agonised, but who sounds tormented by the necessity of sounding agonised. Like obvious role models Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and Will Oldham, Oberst delights in blurring truth and fiction.
Unlike those three, however, he’s constantly anxious to show us how clever the trick is. On the outstanding ‘False Advertising’, amidst tremulous strings and swelling emotions, he shuffles into the spotlight. “Onto a stage I was pushed, with my sorrow well-rehearsed,” he sings. “So give me all your pity and your money. Now.” By the end, as a crowd stomp and cheer, Oberst seems so intent on satirising his audience, his contemporaries and himself, you worry the songs will disappear in the maze of his game-playing.
They don’t, quite. There’s a lot to take in on ‘Lifted’: epic tales of fractious love with far too many words; tunes that twist and writhe on a whim; a title that’s the most economical thing about the record. Persevere, though, and Oberst is always fascinating. He’s gifted, magnetic, excruciatingly self-aware and brilliantly pretentious, and when he tries to defuse the latter he’s more pretentious still.
And, from imagination or experience, he can spin a terrific yarn. The highlights of this, his best album yet, include ‘Don’t Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come’, a tense Western melodrama about God, dead girls and men with silver guns where Oberst presents himself as Johnny Cash’s gauche poetry-writing grandkid. Finally, there’s ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)’, a rant which strives to squeeze full-length autobiography, current affairs analysis, a failed suicide attempt and an enduring message of hope into ten minutes and just about succeeds. As an encapsulation of this mad and dense record, it’ll do fine: untrustworthy, confused, touching and idiotically ambitious; hard work that, undoubtedly, repays the effort.