Usually during times of stress there's a tendency to seek out mindless entertainment, but these days folks are looking to pair their frivolous diversions with more substance. As this year's all-time-low Oscars ratings prove, we want meatier fare. Given that, indie Wunderkind Conor Oberst, better known by his band name, Bright Eyes, could be just what the doctor ordered. The Omaha-based folk troubadour's music is far from mindless; if anything, he's here to remind us that with life comes pain and suffering. (A recent New York Times profile described him as this generation's “new Bob Dylan.”)
To call the singer/songwriter a child prodigy is an understatement. At 23, Oberst is already an old-timer in the music industry, having released his first tape of original songs, toured with his former band Commander Venus, and co-founded a record label (Saddle Creek Records, home to Bright Eyes as well as the Faint, Cursive, and Lullaby for the Working Class) by the time he was 14. Maybe it's that Midwestern work ethic, but Oberst is also prolific: Last year alone, he released his third Bright Eyes full-length (Lifted, or, The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground), a five-song EP, and an album with his side project Desaparecidos.
Fortunately, the speedy production doesn't equal a shoddy harvest: Lifted is his most complex work to date. Influenced by 9/11, the album reveals Oberst channeling some of his well-documented angst into a more external frustration with the world. During a concert in Eugene, Ore., last year, he reportedly inserted an unrecorded verse into his performance of “Don't Know When But a Day Is Gonna Come,” a song that opens with philosophical queries about Jesus. The added lyrics — “It's hard to ignore all the news reports/ They say we must defend ourselves/ Fight on foreign soil/ Against the infidels/ With the oil wells/ God save gas prices” — demonstrate Oberst's realization that his words and his music could influence thousands of young minds.
With a revolving lineup of skilled musicians and friends, Bright Eyes takes rootsy numbers and gives them the royal treatment, jazzing up stark soundscapes with lush, full arrangements and a powerful rhythm section. Even with the embellished sound, Oberst's tell-all confessionals are the most appealing element. Such intensity isn't always appreciated, but the few critics who rail against his melodramatic vocal style and heart-wrenching lyrics have obviously forgotten what it was like to be young. While most of us are saving our mental breakdowns for our weekly visit with the shrink, Oberst is still having all-night heart-to-hearts with his roomies. His emotionally raw ballads may leave you in tears, but they make the ordinary trials of life seem all the more poignant.