BRIGHT EYES: LETTING OFF THE HAPPINESS (1998)
1) If Winter Ends; 2) Padraic My Prince; 3) Contrast And Compare; 4) The City Has Sex; 5) The Difference In The Shades; 6) Touch; 7) June On The West Coast; 8) Pull My Hair; 9) A Poetic Retelling Of An Unfortunate Seduction; 10) Tereza And Tomas.
On his «proper» debut for Saddle Creek Records, allegedly written and recorded as a cohesive LP, Conor Oberst is apparently still «seemingly incapable of penning a bad tune», meaning that the album is only marginally more listenable than A Collection Of Songs. The best I can say is that, this time around, it at least does sound like «a collection of songs» (mostly bad ones), rather than «a collection of sketches that most 12-to-15-year-olds usually stuff under their beds». Thus, if there is any reason to call «Bright Eyes» an actual band, the reason might as well start here.
The first two songs will probably be enough to determine everybody's feelings. I find them totally unlistenable — interesting melodic input amounts to zero and then falls below, and the singing... well, keep in mind that this is still slightly before Oberst found his trademark «tremolo bleating» manner; here, he still seems to be going for the «drunk soulful hipster» approach, one of the most infernal images known to mankind.
"And I give myself three days to feel better / Or else I swear I'm driving off a fucking cliff", he blurts out in the opening number. Since the album has been praised so much for the «sincerity» of its emotions, I can only assume that three days after recording the song, Oberst did feel better. The question is — once he did, why the heck didn't he throw away all of these recordings and replace them with something more worthwhile? Some people, when they feel bad, should probably keep away from the studio, especially if they cannot stay focused on anything other than feeling bad. Millions of people all over the world are feeling bad at the exact moment that I'm typing this. Heck, I'm not feeling too good myself. But even so, I'd rather go and just bang my head against the wall than sympathize with the plight of one Mr. Oberst from Omaha, Nebraska, who, at the tender age of 18, seems to be more pissed off at life than Dr. Faust in his twilight years — most of it because he doesn't seem to be able to get it on with chicks. (On the other hand, at least he is being honest about it: "And I fell for the promise of a life with a purpose / But I know that's impossible now" is quickly followed by "...because I just can't think anymore about that or about her tonight". Yes, we do know that in most of these cases it is a she that is responsible for most of the problems, not an impersonal metaphysical transcendental it.) Aw come on now, Conor, chicks are trash, just get over it and find your future in furniture polishing. Or speleology.
About a third of the «songs» is just Oberst with his broken-hearted raspy screaming; on the other tunes, he is joined by some of his compadres on drums, bass, electric guitars, and poorly tuned or downright broken electronic instruments. Everything is conventionally lo-fi, stumbling, unrehearsed, and, for the most part, melodically primitive. Deadly slow, too, meaning that the only fast-paced song on the album, ʽThe City Has Sexʼ, will pass off as a highlight by definition — for its frenzied, but still underworked, country-rock arrangement, and its title, which is pronounced far more completely in the opening line: "The city has sex with itself, I suppose". The last verse of the tune is quite telling as well: "And I scream, but I still don't know why I do it / Because the sound never stays, it just swells and decays / So what is the point? / Why try to fight what is now so certain? / The truth is all that I am is a passing event that will be forgotten". Yes, yes, YES! Listen to Mr. Oberst speak the truth about himself.
There is exactly one track on the entire album that I found myself caring about — ʽContrast And Compareʼ, a duet with Neely Jenkins who's got the sweetest voice ever; this creates a sort of beauty-and-the-beast effect on the tune that works much better on the nerves, and it is only too bad that Oberst did not make more use of this contrast on the other songs as well. By all means, ʽTereza And Tomasʼ, a song that is supposed to bring a relatively peaceful and romantic end to the album, could have benefited from Neely's contribution — if Oberst cannot sing, this does not necessarily mean that every Bright Eyes song is unfit for a real singer.
Overall, I can only repeat what I have already said a million times about modern bands. To sing about the literal or figurative End Of The World when you are 15 or even 18 years old is a ridiculous occupation, unless you have at least won the Nobel Prize when you were 12. To sing about the End Of The World when you are 18 years old and cannot sing — or play — or come up with a unique sound — or write interesting, memorable melodies — or get professional musicians to do all these things for you — or compensate for the lack of everything with at least something that goes beyond «hmm, decent enough lyrics for a teenager» — is simply abysmal. Thumbs down all the way to the floor; I see no reason why, on any objective or subjective scale, this crap should be preferable to Justin Bieber.