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."

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."

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."

Yet another plot point is revealed on the tracks "Arienette" and "Sunrise, Sunset." On both he pleads to a girl named Arienette for escape from a mental state awash in drudgery, anger, sadness and fragility. Who is this Arienette? The interview on the album broaches that subject as well, but in a way that deflates any hope of peeking behind the scenes of Oberst's plot line.

Interviewer:How about this Arienette, how does she fit into all this?

Oberst: I prefer not to talk about it, in case she's listening.

Interviewer:I'm sorry, I didn't realize she's a real person.

Oberst: She's not, I made her up.

Interviewer:So she's not real?

Oberst: Just as real as you or I.

Interviewer:I don't think I understand.

Oberst:Neither do I, but after I grow up I will.

The only optimistic moments on Fevers and Mirrors come during the final two tracks. "An Attempt to Tip the Scales" is the poppiest number on the album (despite Oberst's claims that the record is comprised of the "more pop" songs he composed, it's more accurately a collection of dirges). Sung in a lilting, soft voice over spare guitar strumming, Oberst criticizes the self-absorption of others ("I think you lost what you loved/in that mess of details/they seemed so important at the time") while he looks to the changing of seasons for a shift in circumstance ("Winter's gonna end/I'm gonna clean these veins again/So close to dying that I finally can start living"). Similarly, on the final track, the folky "A Song to Pass the Time," Oberst compares others' pain to his own, wishing he could help them.

Between these two last songs, the six-minute interview is inserted. After three quarters of an hour of expounding on his depression, unrequited longing and frustration, the Q&A session kills any expectation the listener may have of trying to understand Oberst and his obsessions, which is exactly his point. "You're seeing art, and obviously it has a lot to do with me because I made it, y'know, but there needs to be a separation between the art and the artist," says Oberst.

But where does that leave him? Is the fragile wunderkind capable of making the separation himself? Does he write what he is, or become what he writes? When making this album, was he subconsciously painting a portrait of himself that he's destined to conform to? Those are the kinds of questions that Conor Oberst has trouble answering himself.

"To be honest with you, it gets pretty blurry a lot of times, like what parts are me and what are some other things that are being employed to get my point across or make the song seem more absolute. There is a separation for sure, not everything that's being sung about, even though it may be presented in a first-person manner, it's not all me. But a lot of it is, and that's where it gets messy, 'cause it all just gets jumbled together, and that's why there's no point in trying to pick out specifics. I see it as just sort of extraneous."

Bright Eyes is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, March 21, at Modified, with Tristeza, and Harcuvar. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Contact Brendan Kelley at his online address: Brendan@I_type4miles.zzn.com

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