BRIGHT EYES: FEVERS AND MIRRORS (2000)
1) A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever And A Necklace; 2) A Scale, A Mirror And Those Indifferent Clocks; 3) The Calendar Hung Itself; 4) Something Vague; 5) The Movement Of A Hand; 6) Arienette; 7) When The Curious Girl Realizes She Is Under Glass; 8) Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh; 9) The Center Of The World; 10) Sunrise, Sunset; 11) An Attempt To Tip The Scales; 12) A Song To Pass The Time.
Critic alert! For the first time in Bright Eyes history, Conor Oberst is trying to apply his (lack of) musical talent to the craft of writing and recording actual music. What used to be, only recently, just rudimentary acoustic guitar patterns, is getting seriously expanded: no less than ten different musicians are involved in the project now, and the mysterious «Omaha sound» is gradually becoming decloaked. Now it basically means: «play the same simple shit, but dress it up in as many musical layers as possible to make up for the lack of interesting chord progressions».
For instance, already on the second track we have this little chamber piece where Conor is playing an organ, perennial partner Mike Mogis is bowing a pedal steel, Jiha Lee is fiddling with the flute, and A. J. Mogis is punching the piano — all at the same time, imagine that! Almost enough to make you forget that the music is just a simple country waltz, and that all of the parts supplied by the extra musicians are rather predictable flourishes that bake up the mood in strict accordance with traditional old recipés. One impressive musical hook, just one, could have saved the situation, but we are not going to get so lucky.
The good news is that, although Oberst still has a long way to go towards mastering the art of songwriting, Fevers And Mirrors is nowhere near as irritating in its misery as Oberst’s early escapades, mainly because he is trying to find a more accessible voice for himself, without losing the individuality. Now most of the wailings are produced with a «bleating» tone — more quiet, more frail, less intrusive. If there is an infectious patient running around town and scattering his bacteria in everybody’s direction, after all, everybody’s only immediate concern will be to get the sick guy back into bed. On Fevers And Mirrors, the sick guy grudgingly does return to bed, and stays there most of the time, blearily contemplating his fevers in his mirrors.
He does still attempt to make a few escapades — like on ʽThe Calendar Hung Itselfʼ, whose prime point of attraction is a little foam-at-the-mouth hysteria staged around a «mad» chanting of ʽYou Are My Sunshineʼ that is supposed to reflect the protagonist’s suicidal desperation (she’s gone, you know, and this is sufficient ground for behaving like an ugly spoiled teenager, unfortunately suffering from a little bit of poetic gift, etc. etc.). As unbearably pretentious as that moment is, it is at least a moment that kind of stays with you, so there must have been something to the idea, if only it were realized better.
Everything that comes afterwards mostly follows the same formula. Slow, steady, rhythmic backgrounds with a rootsy backbone, «graced» by various instrumentation that is not usually associated with «rootsy» — vibraphones, Mellotrons, flutes, various «treated» guitars and keyboards, etc. — in addition to the predictable stuff like pedal steel and accordeons. No matter how intricate the arrangements are, though, nothing sticks around for too long, and everything seems to be merely a comfy setting for Oberst’s lyrical floodwaves.
Realising, perhaps, that the floodwaves might eventually flood the listener’s patience, Oberst takes a little jab at himself with the aptly titled ʽAn Attempt To Tip The Scalesʼ — a song that disappears rather quickly, in order to make way for a staged «interview» between an announcer and a guy impersonating Oberst himself, so thoroughly full of himself (and it) that it is impossible to take any of those replicas seriously. The uncomfortable feeling is that the impersonator is not so much trying to impersonate the real Oberst, as he is trying to capture the spirit of vintage Bob Dylan interviews (the ones in which Bob would turn the interviewer’s boring questions back at the interviewer himself), but without a firm hold on Bob’s complexity or humor.
Humor is actually the key element here: if the real Dylan ever tried to befuddle an interviewer by saying “I do have a brother who drowned in a bathtub... actually, I had five brothers who died that way. My mother drowned one every year for five consecutive years. They were all named Padraic, so they all got one song”, it would be in firm keeping with his regular artistic persona, for whom humor, all kinds of it, was an integral part. But nothing about Oberst is ever funny — and so this attempt to have a little «forced laugh» at the expense of his alter ego does not succeed. It certainly breaks up the predictability of the flow, but I wouldn’t put it down as a healthy contribution to the «Artistic Reputation Improvement Fund».
If you really, really want to make yourself like Bright Eyes, try ʽMovement Of A Handʼ. Oberst is easier to tolerate when he puts away at least a small part of his self-pitying (although this happens very rarely), and on this particular track, the Rhodes piano / dulcimer / Mellotron arrangement plus Jiha Lee’s backing vocals — ever so often, Oberst’s only salvation comes from a nice girl who can sing better than he does — create a mood that is so sympathetic, I could even find it «enchanting» on a particularly auspicious day. Yet this is only an exception; already on ʽArienetteʼ, the guy is back to his cosmic misery.
Lyrically, I do not see any positive or negative growth. There are so many words here, such an endless sea of metaphors both boring and startling that we could spend years dissecting them, but I am really reluctant to discuss lyrics whose only underlying subject had already long ago been sufficiently well covered by John Lennon in just one phrase: “If I were you, I’d realize that I love you more than any other guy”. If you are eighteen years old, relatively straight (it’s a big question whether Conor Oberst has any appeal for gay audiences), and have psychological troubles adapting to the opposite sex, these songs may have a consoling message for you (at least you’ll know that you are not alone). Go one step further and that’s it. This ain’t a case of «Romeo and Juliet», really, it’s a case of masochistically picking at a small paper cut to see if you can get it to inflame — nothing like a nice little gangrene to keep one’s spirit healthy.
The only reason why I don’t give the album an overall negative assessment is because it is really «neutral» rather than overtly «negative». Behind all the nicely planned multi-layered arrangements Oberst’s angst and personal apocalypse does not hit as hard on the nerves, so the album just goes by, unfelt, unnoticed, but inspiring a little hope that this could be the beginning of real musical growth. A little, but not too much — Conor Oberst is clearly not going to sacrifice his rich inner universe for the sakes of writing stupid antiquated things like «original melodies».