by carl wilson

Failure's Always Sounded Better: Bright Eyes


I could have been a famous singer
If I had someone else's voice,
But failure's always sounded better:
Fuck it up, boys, make some noise!

(Bright Eyes, Landlocked Blues)

In today's Globe & Mail, a consideration of the metamorphoses of Conor Oberst - from self-wary indie-crush squeeze toy to self-(less?)-aware rock-star-in-the-making (above, the most roxx starr foto of him I could find) - and a semi-contrarian defence of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the performative poptronica one, over I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, the chin-stroke Emmylou-Harris folkie one, between his two new albums.

Tomorrow's column actually serves as Part the Second of this piece, expanding out from Bright Eyes' nova-going to all the "indie"-type bands that have suddenly become mainstream, and the reactions to same, and considering whether indie rock is a genre or a politics or a business model or a myth. (Featuring gratuitous Pitchfork-bashing 4 yer pleaszah.) [...]

Bright Eyes and sleepless nights

The Globe & Mail
Friday, January 21, 2005

The year 2004 was Conor Oberst's annus mirabilis, in a life that often sounds like a string of anni miserabili, at least in the hundreds of songs the 24-year-old has penned since he began performing more than a decade ago.

The Nebraska-bred singer better known as Bright Eyes went everywhere, man. He moved to New York; flew to Nashville to record with Emmylou Harris; started an Internet-based music label called Team Love; and toured with the anti-Bush Vote for Change campaign in the fall with R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen, who gave him a flea-market jacket as a souvenir.

Then, in November, Bright Eyes became the first artist since Puff Daddy in 1997 to have songs in the top two spots on the Billboard singles chart simultaneously.

The media tend to exaggerate that last achievement, as the gossip mills did when a shot of Oberst kissing Winona Ryder surfaced in 2003 (it was a friendly buss, he says, and they never dated). The chart in question measures only purchases; since practically no one really buys singles, first-week sales to hard-core fans were enough to earn the double-header. The primary Billboard chart factors in radio play, an arena where Bright Eyes poses no threat to Avril Lavigne as yet.

Oberst's songs would fall as awkwardly as soliloquies from Hamlet between the mall-rat anthems on rock radio today. Indeed, they mimic Shakespearean self-interrogations, pinballing from hubris to humiliation, from extended metaphor to explicit obscenity, in verses that overflow their rhyme schemes and choruses that often forget to arrive. The music rests on punky folk-rock that fans of both Neil Young and Green Day might embrace, but beware - harps, organs, horns and parade drums are apt to erupt any minute.

The two November singles were a tease for this week's unveiling of two distinct Bright Eyes albums, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. They are his first full-lengths since 2003's Lifted, whose 200,000 sales were startling for a record on Saddle Creek, the indie label he founded at 14 with Omaha friends.

The new discs were heralded on Sunday with a front-page New York Times arts-section review (following a breathless Times Magazine profile of Oberst two years ago), and similarly reverent treatment elsewhere. There will be tours and videos for each album, with a break in the spring to open for R.E.M. in Europe, and the cries of "boy genius" and "new Dylan" from the likes of Rolling Stone magazine are unlikely to abate.

And so are the catcalls. In September, a St. Louis paper nominated Oberst one of the "Ten Most Hated Men in Rock." This year no doubt it will get even hipper to denounce the new discs as either (a) more whining Oberst self-indulgence, which the speaker "always hated," or (b) a sellout of his sensitive prairie solitude, which the complainant "used to love."

If being Conor Oberst seems an exhausting proposition, you're right: The common theme of both albums is not getting any sleep. Digital Ash is a night-prowler's suite, bedevilled by death and the vast cosmos, with an insomniac synthesizer mewling like no Bright Eyes album before. I'm Wide Awake takes place amid lovers' sundappled bedrooms, protest marches and hangovers at dawn, set to acoustic guitars and Emmylou Harris harmonies. On one, Oberst risks waking up as a cockroach; on the other, sunrise might find him turned from a puppet of his own art into a real boy.

I'm not sure what to make of this sudden compartmentalization of his bipolar sensibility - except that, in its way of getting us talking, it's another phase in his main metamorphosis, from cult indie crush to bona-fide rock star.

Most critics, who prefer I'm Wide Awake, overestimate Oberst the writer, who has plenty of gifted rivals, and underrate Conor the performer, who holds his own beside the far-out vocal expressionists of hip-hop. Yes, he yelps and howls less here, in more formally balanced songs. But calling that "maturity" seems like pressuring van Gogh to go easier on the colour.

Oberst usually undermines his own confessions, vocally and verbally, showing that his excesses are more theatrical than therapeutic. In art, unlike life, extremism of thought and feeling is no vice. For that I bless the messiness of Digital Ash, which restores ridiculous Goths such as the Cure to their rightful place among Bright Eyes' ancestors, while the ghost in Hamlet cries, "Remember me."

The transformations of Conor Oberst are far from over. I do regret that both discs contain less protest than he's hinted at. As on Lifted, which may have been rock's fullest encapsulation of post-9/11 anxiety, he mixes personal and political, but not as fiercely as in concert staples such as When the President Talks to God. A genuinely mature Bright Eyes album would explore the wilderness of the world more than the Importance of Being Oberst -- but then again, is that what rock stars are for?

Bright Eyes plays the Phoenix tonight (410 Sherbourne St., 416-323-1251) with Coco Rosie and Tilly and the Wall. The show is sold out.


SUPPLEMENTARY: My article about Bright Eyes and the Nebraska scene from when Lifted was released (on the first anniversary of 9/11, a connection whose relevance apparently escaped me at the time).

Omaha: Where the wild things are

Carl Wilson
12 September 2002
The Globe and Mail

Omaha, Nebraska: It's the birthplace of both Malcolm X (whose family was driven off by hooded Ku Klux Klansmen) and Johnny Carson (whose wasn't), the home of an insurance company that sponsored the 1970s' most iconic wild-animal TV show. It's cornfields and urban sprawl, conventioneers and beef-factory farms. It's the boardroom of the badlands, on the way from no place to nowhere.

Now, according to Time and Jane magazines and the L.A. Times, Omaha is the new Seattle or Minneapolis or Halifax - the next big temporary thing. Something in the water has bred a crop of mutant indie bands, higher than the tallest ears of corn, roaring louder than the most hormone-maddened bull in the pen.

The hype centres on the tiny Saddle Creek label, which hosts the Faint, Lullaby for the Working Class, Azure Ray, Cursive and especially songwriter Conor Oberst, with his group Desaparecidos and his solo project Bright Eyes, which comes to the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto on Sunday.

No doubt all the Nebraskan contradictions mentioned above did help pump the pressure under this geyser of creative noise: As Oberst has put it, the Saddle Creek musicians had to support each other just to survive. But you could say the same of any hundred self-nominated "armpits of America," with their own inventive cliques. It's really Oberst who's making 2002 Omaha's year.

From the title down, Bright Eyes' Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is prolix, absurd, overdone and captivating. At 73 minutes, it's more than twice as long as Desaparecidos' Read Music/Speak Spanish, which came out in February, a series of hard-driven, heart-rending punk anthems about (no kidding) land use, zoning and superstores.

Oberst is all of 22, and has been working the vein of his own despair as a songwriter for nearly a decade. He's drawn comparisons to everyone from Kurt Cobain to Emily Dickinson - I'd add Winnipeg's Weakerthans - but most frequently, by the likes of Rolling Stone, to Bob Dylan, whom he resembles in little but wordiness and nerve.

With 13 songs that go on for eight or 10 minutes each, Lifted is a messier, less satisfying affair than 2000's Fevers and Mirrors. But it doesn't matter. Even when the lyrics indulge Oberst's ambivalence about the cult idolatry and industry praise, his voice mesmerizes in twists and turns from melodic croak to operatic howl. Like almost any good art, it bypasses questions of pretense - if you can make it feel like a pleasure and a surprise, why not put on that mask, or rip it off melodramatically? Go ahead and tell me something trite, if you make it feel alive.

What does Lifted sound like, then? Sometimes a rambling, mumbled monologue to an acoustic guitar strum that justifies reference to Dylan's Freewheelin', sometimes an early-sixties Nashville production with a string section, sometimes a punky squall with a bright organ backup and a chorus, literally, of drunks in a local bar. On his current tour, he's bringing a 15-piece orchestra, a typical rock kiss-of-death that from him seems like just another exercise in going over the top for the sake of the thrill ride down.

Stories come in and out of view, with Oberst scribbling notes across the margins: "The last few months I have been living with this couple/ Yeah, you know, the kind that buy everything in doubles . . . and I am thankful/ That someone actually receives the prize that was promised/ By all those fairy tales that drugged us . . . Will my number come up eventually?/ Like love is some kind of lottery/ Where you scratch and see what is underneath/ It's 'Sorry,' just one cherry/ 'Play again,' get lucky."

Press and fans have made much of Oberst's depression, but here it's leavened by variety as he graduates from teen angst to undergrad philosophy. Yet the stereotype has always been belied by his phrasing, vocally and verbally. I wouldn't call it glum so much as caring. If there's such a thing as post-irony, this is it - knowing that being disengaged is no choice at all, without feeling obliged to play along with snares and shortfalls and out-and-out lies.

It isn't cynical, this music argues, to refuse to forget what you know. Whatever credit or blame Omaha deserves, Oberst seems to find there a sense of love without pity, which makes his diary start to seem like everybody's autobiography - where you can't wait to read the next page.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, January 21 at 4:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)



Why is it we get so caught up with this stuff? Who cares whether it's a genre, or not. The point is that it is something that happens and the question is a matter of power...or did I mean to say politics? Hey, some of my best personalities are indie. Why not let bygones, begone...and just enjoy the ride. George Stroumboulopoulos is a fashion statement, and unfortunately he's not as stupid as we might like. I'll not mention some other less than spectacular Chum-City refugees now living in the CBC concentration camp. There is nothing "Indie" about that guy and over my dead body will he represent my bretheren...he has no fashion sense. Anybody out there still wear acid washed jeans and studded belts? The guy is a superbly self-marketed pop personality with a pretty healthy sense of irony...that's it, that's don't get to be indie by defending Tommy Douglas and Joe Strummer as political just get to work at CBC. Trust me, I know...

Posted by Phil on January 28, 2005 6:12 PM



Is Indie a genre? Of course it is. Proof: I work for a magazine with the phrase “Indie Culture” in the masthead.

Proof that it has reached the end of its use value: the CBC is banking on George Stroumboulopoulos as their vision of an Indie journalist.

Is genre a sociologically valid and consistent form? No. A genre is a set of aesthetic codes that are marketed and usually derived from a real or imagined cultural shift; shifts that are either revolutionary or reactionary.

We, as informed listeners, know that what was marketed, as “grunge” was nothing more than 1980s post rock with Fleetwood Mac levels of production. We informed listeners also know that what has come to be known as Indie had its roots as a 4-track reaction against the former. It was not an exaltation of lived-poverty, as was the behavior of blues and folk enthusiasts for decades (this music described as Indie is usually moans from the dark suburban night) but an exaltation of poverty of means as a means for authenticity. Telling that it’s stature was based on a denial of technological savvy.

And this is where I start to agree with you Carl, as technology reshapes the method by which we’re cultured by music, “genre” is revealed as a string of adjectives after a file name. Indie may very well be the final genre, a coda in the on off on battle of rock music to prove its legitimacy for the last 30 years. The pitchforking of Oberst was, as you described, as predictable as the new Dylan praise. Is this binary shit over yet? I hope so.

Ever overhear, in a record store, a 17 year-old boy talking to a 17-year-old girl about how “essential” the Weather Report were? I did, and it’s the future and I’m quite happy with it.

Posted by Brian on January 24, 2005 3:38 PM



nice column, carl - the perfect chin-scratcher for a snowy, bunkered saturday morning and a hot cup of coffee.

two-thirds of the way through you get to the salient point: "is indie really a genre?" you might be being rhetorical, but there's a lot in the question. of course it's not a genre - the indie rock field, if you consider it from a purely musical standpoint,is far too aesthetically diverse to categorize together in any meaningful way.

so why does the question itself come up so much? perhaps it has to do with the uneasy relationship between musical aesthetics and a larger sociology of music. the fact that the term "pop(ular) music" stuck is an acknowledgment that music can't really be extricated from its reception: while listeners want to think that the primary question is "is the music any good?" it may belie the deeper, more self-implicating question of "who else likes it?"

that self-implication is what the types trade on, and why their credibility-based approaches seem so compromised: you get a sense that their admonishments are completely disingenuous, that they're not really on about what they purport to be on about. it's not about being a musical free-thinker, it's about liking the right stuff. crossover bands always press the distinction home: can we still like them now that people we don't identify with like them too?

underneath it all is a musical tribalism. "indie" is the name for one of those tribes now, and as you've point out the term pretty much over. it was once "alternative" and before that "college rock" and before that whatever the hell, and i'm sure that a new name will emerge from the blogosphere really soon. the common thread is a group of people who want to divorce themselves from what they perceive as the gormless, often teenage, marks who are happily willing to be exploited by whatever crass marketing-driven tunage big records companies can produce.

in the end the difficulty arises because of indie rock's inability to question its own mechanisms of credibility and legitimacy, which often pose as aesthetic but are really quite similar to a tween's reason for liking the latest ashanti track.

that's where the issue of scale comes into play: in indie rock it's not necessarily about being good it's more about being part of a smaller, more discriminating tribe (it's funny that indie rockers put no stock in what is unpopular - for them i have a couple of marillion albums from my geeky but undiscriminating early teenage days).

but hey - i'm no better when it comes to a desire to like and evangelize the "right" music. when franz ferdinand turns up on the soundtrack for NHL2005 on my playstation 2 right beside papa roach i realize quickly that i can't have it both ways. sorry franz, i like you but you gotta go.

Posted by stop14 on January 22, 2005 1:28 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson