In 2008 Rolling Stone declared Conor Oberst (of the bands Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk) the best songwriter of the year. A year later Oberst told the magazine that he wanted to “retire” the Bright Eyes name, but would be making one final album with the band. If his words hold true, that final album, The People’s Key, was released in February.
Is this really it for Bright Eyes, the critically acclaimed band Oberst founded 16 years ago at the age of 15? If this is it, I am grateful I got a chance to see them live again last month in Richmond, Virginia. It was an awesome show at a great venue (The National), but it wasn’t the band’s new stuff that got the crowd (and myself) into the show. It was their earlier work from truly amazing lyrical albums like 2002’s Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, and my personal favorite, 2005’s acoustic focused album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (this album was also released the same day as Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, a more electronic-pop focused album). Both records made it into Billboard\’s Top 20, an incredible achievement for this indie band from Omaha, Nebraska.
I am not a professional music critic; I am simply a fan of music. This is the first band review that I have ever written. Bright Eyes has been one of my favorite bands for years, and The People’s Key is good. Harmonically, it\’s beautiful, and I would probably call it great if it wasn’t for the high precedent the band set for itself in prior albums, but it\’s missing something. And that something is simple. It’s missing Oberst and his uncertain and quivering voice. It\’s missing the beautiful, soul-wrenching stories he’s been sharing with us ever since he was a distraught, angsty and gifted young teenager, stories that brought him and his band so much acclaim, songs like “Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh” and “An Attempt to Tip the Scales” (Fevers and Mirrors) and “Poison Oak” (I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning).
Perhaps predictably, Oberst disagrees with his critics. While introducing the song, â€œA Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)â€ at the Richmond show, Oberst tells the crowd, â€œA lot of people been trying to say our title track\’s whack. You know what we say? We say they got dog shit in their ears.â€ Those were not shocking words to his fans. In the song “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to Be Loved)” from Liftedâ€¦, he sings, â€œI do not read the reviews. No, I am not singing for you.â€
In his own way, though, Oberst was in fact singing for many of his fans that night in Richmond. He played some classic, timeless Bright Eyes songs such as “Something Vague” (Fevers and Mirrors), “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” (Lifted…), “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)” and “Road to Joy” (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning). These were songs that invited many Dylan comparisons at the time of their release, and in my mind give Dylan some serious competition, especially considering that Dylan lived through arguably the most interesting cultural, social and political time period in modern times, while Oberst grew up in the far less remarkable 1990s.
In the 2009 Rolling Stone interview Oberst said that, “It does feel like it needs to stop at some point. I’d like to clean it up, lock the door, say goodbye.” If this is the end of Bright Eyes you don’t have much time to say your goodbyes. Their tour ends in August. ï»¿
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04/08/11 Vancouver, BC Commodore w/ Titus Andronicus
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