The last few months have been slow and lonely in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. While I’m lucky enough to live with someone I actually like, the disconnect from the real world has given me the time and space to reconnect with the things that matter to me. As a result, I’ve developed rituals that bring me small, familiar comforts: among them, listening to Bright Eyes at the weekends,(on vinyl, of course) a small marker between work and downtime. The soft wail of Conor Oberst’s voice has become the soundtrack to my lockdown, and it’s reinforced what I already knew: alone is the best, even only, way to enjoy Bright Eyes.
When a teenaged Conor Oberst released his debut as Bright Eyes in 1998, ‘A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995–1997’, the “band” was essentially him, wailing alone in his room. While Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott would soon join as permanent members, Oberst’s palpable loneliness remained a key foundation of the music. Like many fans, it was never the technical arrangements of Bright Eyes that drew me to them. I did not care how good their earlier songs were on a technical level. The wavering, rough vocals, the distortion, the simple, grating chords all created a chaotic tornado of feelings more so than songs in a traditional sense. I didn’t care if the music made perfect sense; I felt it.
The uniquely personal nature of Bright Eyes was epitomised by the response to the release of ‘Fevers and Mirrors’ in 2000. ‘Fevers’ was a dark, complicated record unlike anything else of the time. It was the last Bright Eyes album that felt solely the possession of the fans who championed Oberst and his band’s music long before anyone else understood. With 2002’s ‘Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground’, the band would find mainstream success, selling over 250,000 copies and being hailed as a groundbreaking “new” artist by high-profile outlets. It would make them the figureheads of a wider moment in indie rock. ‘Fevers’ still belonged solely to the lonely.
‘Fevers and Mirrors’ is something of a concept album. It features a mysterious character, Arienette, and is punctuated with recurring images of fevers, clocks and calendars. Its overarching theme is an obsession with the relentless march of time and decay, but less distorted than its predecessors. For the band, it was a much more “listenable” record in the traditional sense, but with a hidden darkness that when uncovered, makes it less palatable than predecessors ‘Collection or ‘Letting off the Happiness’. Some songs, like the melancholic ‘Something Vague’ or the semi-upbeat ‘An Attempt to Tip the Scales’ mightn’t be out of place on a different record, but they’re not the norm. ‘The Calendar Hung Itself’ is a pure maelstrom of anger and chaos, dripping with venom. The jealousy and disappointment of ‘Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh’, too, feels overwhelmingly pessimistic.
Its reception helps form a larger picture about how strongly we experience Bright Eyes on an individual level. It received a 5.4 from Pitchfork, who called Oberst’s unique voice one of the record’s “fatal flaws”: “His voice has one setting: unsteady quaver. He sounds hypothermic,” writer Taylor M. Clark sneers. He found ‘Fevers’ unoriginal, immature, and overall grating, calling it, “home to the sophomoric musical meanderings of a young songwriter who seems to take himself far too seriously”. The issue, in part, was that Clark himself took the record too seriously: something he found unbearable was the mock interview, in which Todd Fink of The Faint pretends to be Oberst and gives complex, funny answers to questions, claiming to be an attention seeker. Oberst called it a “joke”, a “way to make fun of ourselves because the record is such a downer.” Clark perceived it as “tasteless, ostentatious self-promotion,” among other things. Only NME seemed to “get” the record, calling it a tragicomedy and recognising the humour.
Twelve years later, with the time to better understand the self-awareness of ‘Fevers and Mirrors’, Pitchfork revised their score to a 9, with a far more generous review. The new critique was by a different writer who after 12 years of letting the record exist inside him, found it harder to ignore its merits. But it was the way in which ‘Fevers’ was initially received, where it was even thought of at all, that made it even more special to those inside the clique.
Worth adding though that Clark wasn’t actually wrong. ‘Fevers’ is exactly as overwrought, ambitious and weird as he felt it was. Oberst’s voice does quaver. The second reviewer, Ian Cohen, even admits that Clark was right: “I just also happen to think those are some of ‘Fevers and Mirrors’ most uniquely compelling qualities,” he said. And therein lies its magic. Listening to Bright Eyes is a visceral experience that isn’t so much about the music itself but how you relate to it in that moment; not how you hear the distortion and exasperated wails, but how you feel, relate to and experience them. Among the chaos is a very genuine feeling, one that if you don’t get, you just can’t. Much like sex: what excites or repulses you is ever-shifting, personal. It is not easily explained; it just is.
When I listen to Bright Eyes, I don’t hear it through someone else’s ears. I hear obsession and trauma; my own preoccupations with loneliness and decay. I hear the last 15 years of my own lonely listening sessions. I don’t want the experience to be distorted by the way someone else hears it – it’s too precious, too personal, to be shaped by someone else’s grubby fingers and experiences, or lack thereof. Years ago, I lived with someone who hated Oberst’s voice so much I couldn’t play Bright Eyes in shared spaces. It showed the gulf between not what we heard, but how we felt it. Now, in my not-so-isolation, I live with someone who not only lets me listen to Bright Eyes, but has his own relationship to them. It’s his vinyl that I play in our home at the weekends, both of us quietly taking separate things from the experience. Bright Eyes, and Oberst, helped me to find comfort in my loneliness, but I feel lucky to have found someone I can share it with.