Little Boy Blue

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

However oppressive the atmosphere, Oberst concedes some benefit from his school's higher level of education, fostering the intellectualism evident in his work. "There's stuff that I guess helped me, but for the most part I think it only did bad things for me," he says, laughing.

The atmosphere in Omaha, both socially and environmentally, also had a tremendous impact on Oberst's development. With a pool of like-minded artists -- Cursive, the Faint, Lullaby for the Working Class -- also trying to leave their marks artistically, the Omaha music community has carved a unique niche within the national indie scene. Oberst cites lo-fi singer/songwriter and Omaha local Simon Joyner as his greatest influence lyrically, and unabashedly refers to his own folksy, storytelling style as "pretty Omaha."

Oberst hesitates only briefly when asked what it is that makes Omaha such an unlikely hotbed of creativity. "I think in a town like Omaha, in a state like Nebraska, where everything's very conservative, that makes the art community try harder. Maybe we need to prove ourselves a little more than a town like Athens or San Francisco."

Mirror, mirror: Young Leonard Cohen? The ever-brooding Conor Oberst
Mirror, mirror: Young Leonard Cohen? The ever-brooding Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst

He also credits Omaha's landscape and seasons as inspirations, as well. "It's kind of beautiful . . . you get everything. It's really cold in the winter and really hot in the summer, so there's lots of reasons to stay in your basement and just play. But you get these beautiful falls and springs, too."

The paralyzing Nebraska winter may help explain the amount of time Oberst spent recording Fevers and Mirrors, the product of a full month holed up in the 24-track Dead Space Studios (owned by the Mogis brothers of labelmates Lullaby for the Working Class). Recorded in December of last year, Bright Eyes' latest is Oberst's personal magnum opus, the culmination of a lifetime spent honing songs and molding the collection into the thematic masterpiece he envisioned.

The tracks on Fevers and Mirrors fit together like puzzle pieces, each lending a greater view of the conceptual canvas, but listeners may never be able to finish the picture. Oberst explains: "It was an idea I had a long time ago, and I've spent a year or more writing all the songs. But there's actually -- as far as the whole, like, themes and stuff go -- there's more stuff that I excluded. It didn't all fit on a record, and I ended up selecting some of the more pop songs for the record. Actually there's this one song that's on the Japanese version of the record that's really long, and all of the lyrics are important to the whole concept of the album, but it's just a boring fucking song. It's something that I enjoy, and maybe there's some other people out there that would enjoy it too, but I guess for brevity's sake we went with more of the pop songs."

Fevers and Mirrors begins with a minute-long prelude -- a fuzzy recording of a young child reading a story about two neighbors, one wanting to move away and the other pleading for him not to leave. It's a touching bit of foreshadowing, an appetizer for the dread of separation that permeates the album. Over the static recording of the child reading, Oberst's softly plucked guitar strings wash in, and he starts "A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever, and a Necklace" in a trembling near-whisper. Offering self-depreciating advice to an unnamed muse, Oberst sings, "Don't degrade yourself the way I do/because you don't depend on all the shit that I use/to make my moods improve." As the song progresses, Oberst's pitch raises and cracks until he's crying audibly at the song's apex.

The bombardment of despondent imagery continues on the piano-driven "A Scale, a Mirror, and Those Indifferent Clocks," a track expounding on the illogicality of beauty, language and time via insights like "And language just happened/it was never planned/and it's inadequate to describe where I am."

Oberst again confronts his dark side on the samba-inspired "The Calendar Hung Itself," comparing himself with an ex-flame's new lover ("Does he lay awake listening to your breath/worried that you smoke too many cigarettes?") with a naive tenderness that contrasts with his frenetic strumming and the space-age keyboard contributions from the Faint's Todd Baechle. The song peaks with Oberst paraphrasing "You Are My Sunshine" into her answering machine in a passionate frenzy.

Elsewhere, Oberst and his cast of supporting players (the number of musicians on each track varies from one to six) veer into country-western territory, most notably on "Something Vague" and "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh" -- the former a subdued ballad of a mutual haunting in which Oberst can't seem to differentiate between dream and reality.

"Haligh . . ." is perhaps the brightest moment on an unmistakably resplendent record. A vaguely Johnny Cash-esque melody augmented by Mike Mogis' pedal steel playing, the song is a tale of love lost and the self-destruction it inspires. Between reminiscences Oberst pleads, "There was once you said you hated my suffering/and you understood/and you'd take care of me/You'd always be there/well, where are you now?" Eventually he turns on himself, romanticizing his depression as he does throughout the record, "As I sing and sing of awful things/the pleasure that my sadness brings/as my fingers press onto the strings/you get another clumsy chord."

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