Turn Around Bright Eyes

TALKING TO BRIGHT Eyes frontman Conor Oberst is enough to make anyone feel crusty and jaded--especially if, like me, you are crusty and jaded. There's something about his careful articulation that makes you uncomfortably aware of the absence of crass, four-letter words in his speech, and of the increasing presence of the same in your own. Speaking over the phone from his parents' house in Nebraska, Oberst comes across as just another compulsively honest 20-year-old kid from Nebraska (and Jesuit high school graduate to boot)--even now, amid the minor hoopla over Bright Eyes' eclectic lo-fi pop: heavy rotation on Radio K (KUOM-AM 770), a full-page NME spread, a headlining slot in the upcoming Lyn-Lake Street Fair.

Oberst even adopted a puppy two weeks ago and confesses that the hardest thing about going back on tour is leaving little Alyosa behind. "I just found her, and now I'm going to keep her," he says excitedly. "She's about the size of a football, but she's going to be really big. We were going to take her on the road with us--I really wanted to--but I think she probably wouldn't like it that much."

After this buildup, surely you're expecting to read about a singer-songwriter who makes sappy love songs about corn-fed, God-fearing girls in knee-length cotton sundresses. But no, this is where the sweetness ends. Bright Eyes' new Fever and Mirrors (Saddle Creek) captures that pointless, useless feeling you get right before you find your heart broken, after hours or days of trying to avoid it. Half screamed, half croaked, the songs are emotional exorcisms, with painfully stark lyrics sung in a quivering voice that seems both angry beyond speaking and numb beyond caring. The lyrics draw heavily on both Midwestern and religious iconography, with the gothic country of "Arinette" summoning swaying walls of corn as a symbol of evil (he must read a lot of Willa Cather), while the vibraphone groove of "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh" announces the end of a relationship with the lines, "Let the funeral begin/Hear the casket close."

All these evocations of remorse, penitence, regret, and every species of longing generate ambitious permutations of pop formula, from the rousing punk-salsa of "The Calendar Hung Itself..." to the flute-flavored funk of "The Movement of Hand." Like Billy Crudup in Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, Oberst's pathos has real slacker charisma--at least enough to pull you through his abundant arty self-indulgences. There's even a mock interviewer-as-therapist skit, during which he remembers, "When I was a kid, I used to carry this safety pin around with me...and dig it into my arm until I started crying." No wonder he gets letters from kids across the country telling him their problems. And, yeah, he's prettier than Elliot Smith.

Despite all the attention--last year Oberst spent 11 hours a day for six days straight talking to reporters in Japan--the singer's home life remains sedate. A college dropout who majored in English, he works at an elementary school as a paraprofessional. "It's like a teacher's assistant type of job," he explains. "My mom's the principal at the school I work at, and when I'm in town and not touring, I get to work with her. I think teaching is a really honorable profession. It's something that leaves you with a good feeling inside you at the end of the day. I'd really like to teach someday, maybe when this is all over."

 
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