[I wrote this a while ago, back in April and long before Oberst’s recent gig at the ABC which frankly deserves an essay in itself. I wasn’t going to post it–it’s possibly super cringe-worthy–but hobbling along on the last leg of my dissertation it felt imperative to get something positive out into the world.]
It’s possible that I first discovered Conor Oberst and his (un)merry band Bright Eyes in that most prosaic of millennial ways: via a LimeWire download, a MySpace page, some cloud-space long since lost to the ether. I found myself burning the songs on my iPod, where they sat uneasily alongside my favourite embarrassing emo bands, with an excitement almost spiritual. If The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan was the first album I ever bought with my own money, then I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was the first album that took me truly someplace else. It seemed a statement, a declaration of pure being; its very title rattled my too-thin bones. I listened to it and suddenly I understood my mother’s love for country tunes.
I came to the record a tad late, two years after its release, but it felt like it had been around forever. I’d never heard anything like it. There’s the first song, ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’, with its initiating slurp of soda, its meandering narrative about a woman who finds herself talking to a stranger on a plane as they plunge to their deaths in ‘the largest ocean on planet Earth’; the way it kickstarts into a rollicking country tune, a song for the woman’s imaginary birthday. The way those chilling lyrics about capital punishment, guns, technology and death could be set to this upbeat, catchy melody; it gets me every time. I used to go on long walks and it was springtime, the lambs out in the fields around the Ayrshire town where I grew up. I remember feeling so damn sad my ribs ached with it, but there was still the daffodils and the chickens, the bright green grass too green for my eyes. Something about the song captured that tension of sorrow and sweetness so well. It’s almost a paean to the demise of everything; a reminder that we all must die, that we daily kill each other and ourselves just by being alive.
Believe it or not, this realisation can be liberating. Oberst ironically celebrates the ‘wonderful splash’; his father ‘loads his guns’ while his mother ‘waters plants’. The whole song has this duality of birth and death, regenerating. A search for the sublime, for the next realm: ‘we must run, we must run, we must run’. The song begins with this image of the plunge, but refuses an easy, explainable ending: ‘we must rip out all the epilogues in the books that we have read’. It’s how I felt about life. I wanted that transcendent pull into another realm, but I didn’t want it to be explained or over; I wanted to prolong the possibility of that ending as much as I wanted it altogether. The oceanic imagery extends to the very ‘city buses’ which are ‘swimming past’ as the singer wakes up: ‘I’m happy just because / I found out I am really no one’. Isn’t this the liberation? That we can be fragments of matter, anonymously lost in the waves, the churn, the world’s strange, all-consuming waters?
The thing about Bright Eyes is that often they’re slapped with the emo label, but emo doesn’t have to mean a fetishised stylisation of sadness and suicide, the old ‘cut my wrists and black my eyes’ favoured by bands with alliterative names (I’m looking at you, Hawthorne Heights). Here, mixed with the pastoral invigorations of country, emo is just a cleansing of pain. There’s something so spiritually pure about that image: ‘death will give us back to God / Just like this setting sun is returned to the lonesome ocean’, the way the bright tones of those chords lick joyfully around it. I would listen over and over again to this song, obsessed with the way Oberst tells the introductory narrative with his lightly pensive intonation, the way of a storyteller in a bar addressing ardent listeners. From then on, I was hooked. I needed Oberst’s lyrics to tell me the tale of my own soul; it was a kind of immersive, boozy, eye-opening religion.
It sounds cliché and dramatic but at fifteen, sometimes it takes music to encourage you to live. The songs on I’m Wide Awake are often wistful, world-weary, lilting in their tales of disconnection, war, lovelorn mourning. You can read them easily against the context of the Iraq War, of Oberst’s utter disillusionment with the Bush administration, the yearning for something more than the era’s obsessive consumerism, cheap culture, ersatz spectacle: ‘on the way home I held your camera like a bible / just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth’. I was struck by so many images: ‘and just when I get so lonesome I can’t speak / I see some flowers on a hillside, like a wall of new TVs’. The way he captured a poet’s Romantic perception contaminated by the fresh plastic and metal of postmodern society. A disenchantment with the world of things. I started experiencing the world with this layered, visionary quality. Maybe everyone else got their earliest fix from Sylvia Plath or the great nostalgic sorrow of F. Scott Fitzgerald or gut-wrenching movies about the decay of dreams, but before all that I had Bright Eyes.
At the heart of the album is ‘Lua’, a plaintive story about the lonely connectivity of New York City, the revolving door of gluttonous nocturnal parties followed by listless and painful mornings. The minimalist strums of an acoustic guitar accompany Oberst’s warbling voice as he documents the little quotidian moments which keep him going: ‘when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I get a coffee and a paper have my own conversation’. It’s a ballad about everyday survival, though draped in the cold indifference of society, the freezing streets, the strange truth that ‘What was normal in the evening / By the morning seems insane’. On the worst days I used to walk around the back of my school listening to this, trying to work out the story it told. I wondered who the girl was, the one who looked ‘skinny like a model’, who kept ‘going to the bathroom’. Was she an addict? Did she make herself sick? Was she pregnant, deranged, confused? The song itself felt bulimic, rendering that rhythm between excess and bareness, the indulgence in oblivion that only really leads to the blank reality of the morning after, the moment after the binge and purge when yes you have to sit there and deal with yourself. I liked the easy way the singer relates to the girl, ‘Well it takes one to know one kid / I think you’ve got it bad’. I thought of old cowboy films, a sort of loose camaraderie amongst the lost and fallen. For a while, I lived in black and white. I wasn’t quite ready to see the sparkling hillside flowers, the ruby of wine, the yellow bird, the blue Atlantic Ocean. I wanted cigarettes, vodka, darkness and the strange clarity of water amidst starvation. This was a formula I knew and loved, though gradually it broke me.
I’m Wide Awake taught me ways to feel whole again. To actually see these beautiful, ruinous, distant landscapes and the lives within them: the ‘New York skyline’, the promise of ‘explosion’; of howling weather, ‘sorrowful rain’, the ‘high rise’ from which glory can still be sung (and this is all from just one song). It was all about letting yourself go to the moment, realising you’re alive, wide awake, somehow open to the world. Feeling yourself caught between the media that consume you, ‘Looking for something / To open my eyes’. I prised myself from the shell of self-hate and had a good hard look at the world. It was hazy, it was a little blurred at the edges. I wanted to fall in love in the way that makes you realise that everything before was blindness; I wanted to drive ‘all night’ to meet someone in the morning. Maybe I didn’t, not then, not really. I guess I fell in love with something else. I fell into the voice, the images, the stories. It was like all the heartbreaking narratives of death and loss and regret that ever existed came together at once in one song. I thought about my friend who lost her dad quite suddenly to cancer and the girl I knew online, aged nineteen, who nearly died curled up with a heart attack from not eating; I thought about all the people I loved but could never quite get to.
‘The end of paralysis / I was a statuette / Now I’m drunk as hell / On a piano bench’. There’s this awesome catharsis to Oberst’s music, the way his voice breaks into a wail or a shout, how the rhythms come crashing down around him. It’s that sense of crumbling I could suddenly relate to. Crumbling into drunkenness. Feeling so liberated you could wrap your arms round someone who felt warm and strong or run across the abandoned racecourse at night or sit on the last train home crying freely because why not, why not? The only people around me were old men, alcoholics—just as lonely as I was.
This is an album haunted by a foreign war, by the tale of the midwesterner’s broken New York fairy tale, by figures of love and pain and despair. The raspy edge of Oberst’s voice is beautifully complimented by the lovely croons of Emmylou Harris and Maria Taylor, by sweet acoustic arpeggios and the occasional burst of raucous, full-band blues. There’s an impulse towards oblivion that leaves the singer feeling stranded on land, longing for the freedom represented by just leaving. The songs are self-aware, referencing the pains and tribulations of music itself, the travelling songs that document our basic human scream for change and connection, bound by a misplaced longing for love and home and belonging. Again and again I go back to it, sifting the songs for those threads of emotion that tease out the sorrows of past and present. I go back to it and each time am startled by some new image that catches my eye, some wisp of despair or moment of joy. Lines like ‘The sun came up with no conclusion’ are poetry, pure and simple. I find them invading my everyday life, drifting on by like advertising slogans, flakes of paint, little flares of pure colour that give sense and purpose to the world.
Oberst has gone solo now, riding on the back of some solid albums. I finally got to see him live back in February, at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. The last song he played was ‘At The Bottom of Everything’, the only song that people got off their seats to dance to. I’m not sure what that says about the current state of the universe, but I think it’s something to do with that melancholy joy, the power of music to remake our sadness into something collective, rousing, powerful. Our need for that intuitive connection, the thing that transcends the text message, the inane commentary of social media, the ubiquitous trills of our smartphones. The thing that makes us want to screech our heads off at the absurdity of everything, the way Oberst does on the album’s closer, ‘Road to Joy’. Listening from the balcony, I pictured my teenage self, wandering those fields; as lost to history’s indifference as the girl that’s writing this, looking out at a city street. It’s a strangely liberating feeling, feeling the nowhere of now.