With dark hair tousled over his forehead, a fragile sheep-like voice and introspective lyrics, Conor Oberst obtrusively plays the role of poetic indie musician troubled by his sorrows. Otherwise known as Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst is a name that has become familiar to many music fans. Gracing the covers of magazines such as Mojo, Harp and Paste, even making an appearance in the New York Times, Oberst is (annoyingly) everywhere.
It’s not only the music that’s made him rich and famous but also his look – the look – that fans fawn over. The casual cool of his premeditated thoughtless wardrobe presents an image of a guy too absorbed in intellectualism to think about how his clothes look. Add this to the songs that regale depression and angst, and it wrenches the hearts of fans looking for someone rich and famous to comfort and console.
With a reputation that is complex and conflicted, Oberst is the man-boy you want to save, the man-boy you want to make happy and the man-boy who would ultimately screw you over.
The rising popularity of Oberst has confounded me. Ingrained in the indie music scene, Oberst has won the hearts of a varied fan base, ranging from teenage girls (and boys), music critics, single men over 36 and college students. Fans and critics alike praise his intensity, the honesty and openness of his music and believe in his status as "indie rock boy wonder," and "the new Bob Dylan."
His hometown of Omaha, Neb. has received countless acclaim for the bands that have spawned from the Saddle Creek record label that Oberst and his friends created. Bands such as Azure Ray and Rilo Kiley have garnered a rabid underground following, Oberst’s name and image the foremost among them. Some are calling Omaha the new Seattle, replacing grunge with indie rock.
I was introduced to Oberst’s music a few months ago at a concert I attended to see musician M. Ward. The opening acts for the show, M. Ward and Jim James, presented a love and talent for music onstage, both with an unassuming and entirely captivating presence. Then came Bright Eyes, and all that talent that had been built onstage was shattered with an overpowering ego overrunning the Roseland.
But with the lauded release of two new CD’s, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, acclaimed in the music magazines I trusted, I thought it was possible that my impression and general dislike of Oberst and his music could be wrong. Maybe the night of his concert I just wasn’t feeling it. So, when Oberst came to Portland last week, I went to the show to settle my uncertainty.
The two opening bands, Neva Dinova and Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter, set the tone for the show’s dismal musical experience. Neva Dinova was easily forgettable with its early ’90s sound. Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter’s set was composed of a boring blur of guitar strumming accompanied by the lead singer’s pristine but ultimately forgettable voice, casting an uninspiring and sleepy atmosphere.
Oberst was what the crowd waiting for, and after these bands he seemed like a welcome presence. I was so wrong about that, and regret ever feeling the minor hope that eventually he would make it to the stage. Finally, Oberst appeared onstage and it was immediately apparent that he was very drunk. I knew at that moment this would be the worst show I had ever seen, and I knew that no matter what fans and critics said I would never be swayed in my general dislike of him or the music.
The performance was composed of a tangled mesh of instruments mixing in with Oberst’s garbled singing. No visible melody was cast that could grab hold of you and pull you in. He’s often been compared to Bob Dylan, given endless praise for originality, but the difference between the two lies in one thing: talent.
I’m no fan of Oberst’s voice. His over-dramatic angst that develops into quavering vocals, occasionally accompanied by severe head shaking, is a turnoff. He does manage to deliver emotion through it, a key component in what it takes to be a real musician, to transfer feeling into words and voice and sound. But Oberst ruins that ability with an overt awareness of presentation and presence.
Instead of experience you get performance with man-boy Oberst, who happily shoves it down adoring audiences’ open mouths by standing profile to them and guzzling down bottles of beer and water and responding to audience party invites by jokingly asking for them to write their address down.
He glories in adoration, in the overt symbolism that peppers his lyrics, winning his liberal audiences’ hearts with stabs at Bush and a concern for women’s rights that he knows the audience agree with.
Old fans expect growth as the years pass with a musician, but the Oberst onstage presented an individual whose music has been corrupted by the love of fame, and who just hasn’t traveled with his fans in the process of growing up. Conor Oberst is still a boy, and his music is far from reaching a level that can be called impressive. Bright Eyes is just not so bright.