Eyes Wide Shut

Putting the grin back in chagrin: Bright Eyes

Some day, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst should cover a Britney Spears song. We all love it when Lil' Miss Miniskirted Mouseketeer sings "Oops! I Did It Again!" while writhing around the stage, bending so far back around her stripper's--um, I mean dancer's--pole that her bellybutton almost transforms from an innie to an outie. But just once, I'd like to see Oberst out there in the spotlight, cowering in the corner of the stage with his bruised, guitar-picking fingers, painfully singing the Spears refrain: "I'm not that innocent."

The line positively belongs to Bright Eyes: I'm not buying that shtick that says he's just a naive, earnest little musician who has pinned his heart to his record sleeve. Sure, he's Midwestern (Oberst hails from Nebraska). Sure, he started singing and playing guitar for Commander Venus when he was a mere 14 years old. (Now he's a mere 20! Aw, look at little Conor go!) Sure his bedroom-pop moniker Bright Eyes--which he shares with a cast of rotating musicians--recalls one ape's affectionate name for Charlton Heston's marooned scientist. But I'm still betting that somewhere down in Oberst's chest cavity, there's a black heart waiting for revenge--an inner Columbine wallflower at the homecoming dance of the soul. And it is that core--not the "intimacy" or "openness" that critics too often speak of--that makes his music so believable.

What we never admit about starry-eyed romantics is that they can turn plain mean when you mess with their dream. And in that sense, Oberst is a true lover. Last year's breakthrough Fevers and Mirrors (Saddle Creek) is filled with lyrics that read like Rimbaud for Indie Rockers, with equal parts wide-eyed passion and evil-spiritedness. (Musically, Oberst generates a gritty-gritty-twang-twang of guitar dirges, along with the occasional orchestral musings or sashaying drums. Sometimes you can even hear his hands thumping against the guitar's belly.) The best track on the album--the tango-samba riot of riffage "The Calendar Hung Itself"--has Oberst singing to the girl who left him for another man, "I kissed a girl with a broken jaw that her father gave to her/She had eyes bright enough to burn me/They reminded me of yours." He isn't reminiscing nostalgically about his lover's sweet gaze or lamenting her wounded soul. He's threatening her with the juxtaposition of images, menacing her with subtlety.

Judging by its melodic qualities alone, Bright Eyes' latest full release Oh Holy Fools--a split-disc shared by fellow Nebraskans Son, Ambulance--would seem to be a departure from Fevers and Mirrors, maintaining only that album's irony-free melodrama and lofty, sentimental appeals. Bright Eyes' songs here are made up of acoustic guitar strums fit for church-camp sing-alongs, laced with summery strings, flutes, and pianos. "Oh You Are the Roots That Sleep Beneath My Feet and Hold the Earth in Place" (a Keatsian title if ever there was one) even employs a spry harmonica lead. But it's when Oberst's distressed-cockatoo-singing-a-lullaby voice drags itself out of his throat, insisting, "When I'm suffering through some awful drive/You occasionally cross my mind," he's again torturing his beloved--telling her grandiosely that she anchors the world, and then casually remarking that he thinks about her only every once in a while.

Oberst's lyrics are often most revealing and cutting when they are hiding behind the wording of an unreliable narrator. A songwriter who bares all in his music may be honest, but he is also simple--and that's not something one can claim of Oberst. Let's face it: Being prepared to do anything to get others to feel compassion for you, or even to get someone to love you, often means performing some grisly acts and playing some dishonest games. As Bright Eyes shows, experiencing the ugly side of passion and then still wanting to go through with it is much more profound than expostulating upon how intoxicating it is to be--tra la la!--in love.

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