Little Boy Blue

Bright Eyes' wunderkind Conor Oberst plunges into a world of adult-size despair with Fevers and Mirrors

Interviewer: Now, you mentioned empathy for others, would you say that is what motivates you to make the music that you make? Conor Oberst: No, not really. It's more a need for sympathy. I want people to feel sorry for me. I like the feel of the burn of the audiences' eyes on me when I'm whispering my darkest secrets. When I was a kid, I used to carry this safety pin around with me, everywhere I went, in my pocket, and when people weren't paying enough attention to me, I'd dig it into my arm until I started crying. Everyone would stop what they were doing and ask me what was the matter. Interviewer: You're telling me you're doing all this for attention? Conor Oberst: No! I hate it when people look at me. I get nauseous. In fact, I could care less what people think about me. -- transcript of a recorded pseudo-interview with singer/songwriter Conor Oberst, from his band Bright Eyes' upcoming LP Fevers and Mirrors

Though the preceding excerpt is taken from an obviously scripted and staged radio interview about a record that won't hit shelves until the end of May, it speaks volumes about the "artist" that the barely-20-year-old Conor Oberst has become. The founder of Bright Eyes, and occasionally its only member, Oberst has created a haunting epic with Fevers and Mirrors, a record that seethes with funereal sadness, anxiety and self-loathing like few albums ever written.

In the tradition of brooding storytellers like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Oberst uses his literate-beyond-his-years wordplay and quavering, impassioned delivery to paint dark pictures of broken relationships, death and crippling self-doubt which form the tapestry of unhappiness that would seem beyond the scope of someone so young.

Oberst's fondness for dismal subject matter is no new phenomenon. From his earliest records, dating back six years to when he was a 14-year-old prodigy playing in Omaha, Nebraska's, Commander Venus, depression, regret and unfulfilled longing have been his forte. His level of ingenuity, both lyrically and musically, paired with his depressive content, has only fed his audience's curiosity about his life and personal tragedies (or lack of them). On the track "Padraic My Prince," off Bright Eyes' 1998 LP Letting off the Happiness, Oberst sings about a baby brother drowning in a bathtub while his mother hears the cries but does nothing to save him, fueling false speculation that the tragedy mirrored a real-life incident. In fact, the faux interview on Fevers and Mirrors brings up the subject.

Interviewer: So some of the references like babies in bathtubs are not biographical?

Oberst: Well, I did have a brother who died in a bathtub . . . drowned. Actually, I had five brothers that died that way. No, I'm serious. My mother drowned one every year for five consecutive years. They were all named Patrick.

The pseudo-interview is designed as a deterrent to a would-be examination of Oberst's life and motives; quite a jaded stance for one so young. "People tend to want to know about me; they seem obsessed with the biographical nature of the material," Oberst says from his Omaha home. "They want to know things about my life, and I just don't think it's really relevant."

The staged interview also deflects analysis of some of the pervasive thematic imagery found on the new record -- recurring mentions of funerals, fevers, mirrors, scales and clocks. Though Oberst offers some interpretation of these symbols, he simultaneously pokes fun at the sympathy he engenders in so many of his listeners, casually mentioning his depression, his vanity and his self-loathing in a single breath.

Whether the people or events mentioned on his records are real, one has to wonder what circumstances would allow a barely-out-of-his-teens Nebraskan to convincingly wail a beautifully constructed line like, "I believe that lovers should be chained together/thrown into a fire with their songs and letters/left there to burn, left there to burn/in their arrogance" (from "A Perfect Sonnet" off last year's Every Day and Every Night EP).

Brought up in a musical family, where his father was a multi-instrumentalist and his older brother played in bands continuously, Oberst began developing his talent at an extremely early age. Playing guitar at 10 and writing songs by age 12, Oberst released his first tape of solo songs before he began the eighth grade. At 14 he formed Commander Venus with friends Tim Kasher (of Cursive), Matt Bowen (currently of the Faint) and Robb Nansel (owner of Bright Eyes' label, Saddle Creek) and plunged himself into the grind of making records and touring. Commander Venus released two acclaimed but below-the-radar albums before breaking up in 1998.

It was then that Oberst began concentrating his efforts on his solo work with Bright Eyes. Heavily influenced and troubled by the strict atmosphere of the private Catholic schools he had attended, Oberst channeled his frustrations into his songs. "[Catholic school] definitely impacted me in every way. Anything like that does. It still baffles me . . . Catholic education is just pretty fucked up, you know? And once you break away from that, it's really hard to be the same, or normal. I think that a lot of my kind of sketchy mental behavior is due to some deeply rooted stuff that fucked me up from that."

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