BRIGHT EYES: A COLLECTION OF SONGS RECORDED 1995-1997 (1998)
1) The Invisible Gardener; 2) Patient Hope In New Snow; 3) Saturday As Usual; 4) Falling Out Of Love At This Volume; 5) Exaltation On A Cool, Kitchen Floor; 6) The Awful Sweetness Of Escaping Sweat; 7) Puella Quam Amo Est Pulchra; 8) Driving Fast Through A Big City At Night; 9) How Many Lights Do You See; 10) I Watched You Taking Off; 11) A Celebration Upon Completion; 12) Emily, Sing Something Sweet; 13) All Of The Truth; 14) One Straw (Please); 15) Lila; 16) A Few Minutes On Friday; 17) Supriya; 18) Solid Jackson; 19) Feb. 15th; 20) The 'Feel Good' Revolution.
In the Golden Age of Music, when the grass was green, cheap, and promoted by Steppenwolf, and the «indie kids» did not draw their power out of the very fact of being pigeonholed, every once in a while there would arise a Poet, capable of stringing together exciting combinations of words, but completely helpless when it came to setting these words to music. And every once in a while he would decide to set those words to music anyway — perhaps because it helped the Poet to reach out to a wider audience, or maybe just because the Poet thought that some sort of non-human accompaniment was required to complete the message.
What would the Poet do, then? Most often, he would take a simple, familiar, folk-tradition-sanctified theme, and adapt the lyrics to it — never pretending to any musical breakthroughs, just getting himself a well-oiled musical launchpad for his charismatic individuality (or for his annoying egomaniacality, whichever way you'd like to call it). Think Leonard Cohen or someone of his ilk, and there you'd have it — nobody in his right mind would call Cohen a great musician or composer, although he is definitely much more than just a «lyricist».
But times have changed since then, and now here comes Conor Oberst, an aspiring young singer-songwriter from Omaha, Nebraska, whose creative streak begins around 1992, when he was just a measly 13 years old. Young Conor Oberst has a poetic gift — one might love his creations, or hate them, but it is undeniable that not everyone can write at 20, 30, or 90 like Mr. Oberst could at 15. Problematically, Mr. Oberst does not have any other gifts: I would not go as far as to suggest that Mr. Oberst is «tonedeaf», but that is one of the options, even if the critics rarely dare to mention it (why face a potential slander suit from someone who provides you with your daily bread?). At the very least, Mr. Oberst is practically incapable of writing a «song» in the most banal understanding of the term — and I insist on «incapable», not on «unwilling».
Be it in 1967, Mr. Oberst could, perhaps, follow the Cohen route, and set his poetic musings to simple adaptations of and simpler variations on the great musical legacy of thousands of nameless folk heroes of the Old and New Worlds combined. But in the mid-1990s, such an approach would be considered obsolete, uncool, and undeserving of a young, ambitious, expressive, and, above all, brutally HONEST and anti-commercial artist. Above all, «indie aesthetics» requires honesty before the listener; throw on some serious poetic talent, and what else do you really need?
Nothing, really, and that is why there is nothing else on Conor Oberst's debut album for his grandest project, the one-man band Bright Eyes. Well, other than a battered, frequently out of tune acoustic guitar, occasional rudimentary electronics / drum machines, some cheap recording equipment, and probably a bedroom. (A few of Conor's friends, mostly amateur musicians from Omaha, some of whom also played in his earlier «band», Commander Venus, guest on a tiny handful of these tracks, but something like eighty percent of the time it's just The Creative Young Man on his solitary own). In a different world, an album like this would have been laughed off the bat — imagine putting on Please Please Me and hearing a Cavern Club-quality recording of ʽI Lost My Little Girlʼ and ʽIn Spite Of All The Dangerʼ instead of ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ. But in this mad, mad, mad, mad world we happen to live in, A Collection Of Songs actually managed to garner some positive reactions — even some reviewers who obviously did not like it still found it necessary to write something like: «Even at a young age, it's clear that Oberst is an extremely talented songwriter, seemingly incapable of penning a bad tune...». Thus quoth Nathan Bush of the All-Music Guide; then, having realized what he has just done one second too late, reluctant to de-quoth himself, he heads straight for the back door — «...(except in the odd case when you sense he didn't try)». Nice try, Mr. Bush of the All-Music Guide!
Unfortunately, as far as my ear is concerned, this whole record consists of nothing but «odd cases», arguably making it one of the oddest albums ever released. ʽThe Invisible Gardenerʼ unlocks the experience with a swift electronic burst, as if you are about to be sent into outer space; three seconds later, the tape recorder clicks, a simple acoustic accompaniment pattern is given a false start, and then it comes again, this time accompanied with an equally trivial «electronic harmonium» pattern. Two and a half minutes later, you might want to ask yourself: «Say! Isn't that just the kind of music-making you'd expect to hear from any fifteen-year old with a tape recorder and a tiny bit of musical education? What strange chain of events has led me into sitting here and listening to this, when I could be saving the world from cancer or dubstep instead?»
But two and a half minutes later also comes the first vocal number, and it provides a response. The lyrics aren't exactly jaw-dropping, but they are fairly respectable for someone who wrote them at the age of 15 or 16: not too overloaded with fashionable clichés and «intellectual metaphors», not overtly romantic, melancholic, or suicidal — and not dumb, either. At any rate, I do not feel too irritated by this wordy stuff as long as I remember the age of the writer. ʽPatient Hope In New Showʼ is basically an ʽI Want To Hold Your Handʼ in a world that has long outgrown 1963, and now we have "and for a moment I could want nothing, your bright eyes burn through my exploding heart" instead.
Where I do feel irritated is the delivery department. Conor Oberst would learn to get better as the years went by, but here it almost seems as if he is struggling with puberty before our very eyes: almost everything comes out in a tuneless, strained, grating rasp, occasionally rising to a wild howl without losing the rasp. Try howling and rasping at the same time — see how long it is before they put you in a straightjacket, and this guy managed to avoid the people in white long enough to record an hour's worth of this cr... er, I mean, «quintessence of honesty».
There is no need to discuss the individual «songs», because most of these creations are not really «songs» — they are nearly formless, only vaguely outlined demo-level sketches. ʽFalling Out Of Love At This Volumeʼ stands out by being faster and more rhythmic than the rest, with faint hints at a guitar hook and an attitude reminiscent of early Cars (ʽJust What I Neededʼ, etc.); and ʽOne Straw (Please)ʼ features real drums and a basic pop-rock swagger. The rest all seem to have been made on the spot, with Conor dragging out his notebooks and just setting the words to whatever sequences of freshly learned chords came along.
Now the thing is, I do not believe that this young gentleman has any real musical talent, but neither, after all, did Leonard Cohen, and it is possible sometimes to get by on the strength of attitude alone, or workmanship and craft alone, or a combination of both. But these raw sketches do not have enough attitude: every time Conor tries to sing in a «normal» voice / whisper, it just comes out «normal» — and boring — and every time he begins rasping and howling, the whole experience just becomes unbearable. As for «workmanship»... well, I do not think even the man himself would be able to or wanting to defend the record as a «solid» offering.
Sure, in a way, it takes GUTS to introduce yourself to the world with your early jottings instead of saving them up for a twenty-years-later archival release, targeted at armies of fans. But with the indie aesthetics in full flight, and with the whole lo-fi craze, and with the general easiness of releasing anything these days (even if these particular days still predated Myspace), in 1998 this kind of move was not that gutsy — fact is, no matter what sort of shit you release, as long as it agrees with certain trends of the day, you will always end up with at least a minor fanbase. Thus, I fail to appreciate the gesture.
Maybe the best thing is to just download the lyrics — as I said, they are damn good for their «age group», and it is always a gas to find a title rendered in proper Latin (ʽPuella Quam Amo Est Pulchraʼ), even if it seems to have been taken from an elementary textbook of the language rather than from Catullus, to whose laurels Conor Oberst may be secretly aspiring. Also, as a sidenote, there is really something eerie about the way in which Oberst howls out "Emily, sing something sweet for me" — maybe they did put him in a straightjacket, after all. But overall, this is a certified thumbs down if there ever was one.
Check "A Collection Of Songs" (MP3) on Amazon