Bright Eyes

   A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995–1997 (Saddle Creek, 1997)
     Letting Off the Happiness (Saddle Creek, 1998)
     Every Day and Every Night (EP)
(Saddle Creek, 2000)
     Fever and Mirrors (Saddle Creek, 2000)
    Oh Holy Fools [split with Son, Ambulance] (Saddle Creek, 2001)
      There Is No Beginning to the Story (EP)
(Saddle Creek, 2002)
      Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek, 2002)
   A Christmas Album (Saddle Creek, 2002)
    Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek, 2005)
   1/2 I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Saddle Creek, 2005)
   Noise Floor (Rarities 1998-2005)
(Saddle Creek 2006)
   1/2 Motion Sickness: Live Recording (Saddle Creek, 2007)
     Cassadaga (Saddle Creek, 2007)
    1/2 Conor Oberst (Merge 2008)
    Outer South (Merge 2009)

Desaparecidos     Read Music/Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek, 2002)

In the Nineties, Conor Oberst was a precocious teenager in Omaha, Nebraska, warbling away on home recordings that showed his early promise as a songwriter. In the 2000s, he delivered big time on that promise: His brand of emotional indie-folk rose to prominence, and Oberst steadily evolved, cannily experimenting, rapidly maturing, and recording a number of classic albums along the way. At first, he piled on the drama and then self-consciously peeled it back. But as he continued on as Bright Eyes (collaborating with producer Mike Mogis), and later, as a solo act, Oberst relaxed into a more freewheeling approach, allowing much more light into his once claustrophobic songs.

Oberst's older brother Justin started Saddle Creek records in 1993 to put out tapes Conor recorded. Less than 10 years later, the label headed up an acclaimed Omaha, NE, scene including Conor's buddies in Cursive and the Faint. Letting Off the Happiness was the label's breakthrough. In full confessional mode, Oberst pairs his sweetly trembling voice with acoustic guitar (the caffeinated "June on the West Coast") as well as with drums, bass, pedal steel guitar, keyboards, organ, samplers, and finger cymbals. Recorded in houses around town—haphazardly, judging by the liner notes—the disc sounds loose but not shambolic, casually buoying Oberst's notebook poetry and cathartic melodies, which he whispers or shouts in jagged chunks.

The tender Every Day and Every Night EP turns the normal travails of teenhood—boredom, love lost—into meditations on the joys and disappointments of making art. Oberst races through the philosophy books he's probably only partly read to get at the stinging, soaring questions that remain after the last page has been turned. Fever and Mirrors—the title refers to Oberst's search for rapture in sickness and obsessive self-reflexivity—opens with a young boy haltingly reading aloud a book he clearly doesn't understand. The album's pretty, almost poppy second-to-last track, "An Attempt to Tip the Scales," ends with a too-long, tacked-on radio interview in which Oberst describes his deep depression in excruciating detail. It is only here, in mocking his self-indulgence, that Oberst slips—who wants to hear about it, except in a tune?

As a sojourn from defining art, love, and life itself, Oberst turned his focus to late capitalism and economic injustice with Desaparecidos. His crimped holler perfectly suits the raucous, new wave–inflected indie rock, but it was on the next Bright Eyes full-length, Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, that Oberst (and a small army of musicians playing accordion, mandolin, cello, etc.) finally quit squinting in the spotlight he'd been occupying. In "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will," Oberst, his voice and guitar echoing in what sounds like a large room—a change from earlier recordings, where the only air seems to come from his breath—confirms a lover's accusations: "You say that I treat you like a book on a shelf/I don't take you out that often 'cause I know that I've completed you/and that's why you are here/that's the reason you stay here/how awful that must feel." The song's climax, a woozy hoedown in which Oberst drags the title's ambivalent thicket of grammar up and down the musical scale, encapsulates and animates as never before this young dude's struggle to step outside of himself without simply tumbling into someone else's embrace or ideas. And while he's as prone to drama as ever, Oberst asserts that people aren't just characters in books—or songs.

Three years later, Oberst made one of his most ambitious (and popular) statements yet, simultaneously releasing two albums: the ballad collection I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, an experiment in electro-pop. With I'm Wide Awake, Oberst dialed back his trademark intensity without sacrificing acuteness of feeling. ("Lua," a pretty meditation on drinking and drugging, is a highlight, its melancholy uncluttered by rage or philosophical abstractions.) Digital Ash puts his newly serene introspection to appropriately cool, but not chilly, music. Not every song is a success, but many of them—like the sweeping tracks "Gold Mine Gutted" and "Easy/Lucky/Free"—show just how capable a songwriter Oberst truly is, whether using an acoustic guitar or a synthesizer and drum machine. (Motion Sickness, a live album recorded in 2005 and released in 2007, documents the breadth of the Bright Eyes catalog, and Oberst's unburdened charisma in a concert setting. It includes the must-own non-album tracks "When the President Talks to God" and "Landlocked Blues.") On Cassadaga, which ranges from rollicking country-rock ("Four Winds") to gorgeous balladry laced with strings and a female backup chorus ("Make a Time to Love Me"), Oberst lays his claim on Americana, sounding more confident than ever. It's a simpatico style for his big themes—destiny, god, individualism—and he seems almost relieved to have found it. Despite its tinge of resignation—with Oberst, there is always inner conflict—"I Must Belong Somewhere" sounds like a mission statement for this album. It's as if a well-constructed song has replaced the full-throated confession as the singer's refuge.

Despite its being his first official solo album, Conor Oberst finds the songwriter more settled than ever, plumbing his country leanings for some of his best songs yet. The fevered "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)" is a bracing homage to Johnny Cash; "Souled Out!!!" a straight-up anthem with trippy lyrics about getting shut out of heaven, and quite possibly not caring. And the ballads, like "Milk Thistle" (which also shrugs at the prospect of going to heaven), are all heartbreakers.

On Outer South, by contrast, Oberst is too laid-back, ceding (on six of 16 tracks) singing and songwriting to band members who were best left behind the scenes. His songs are notable for their easy joy—"Cabbage Town," "Nikorette," and "Slowly (Oh So Slowly)" are the album's uptempo heart. But hearing other, less distinctive voices singing more routine numbers jars the listener out of Oberst's energized bliss. For true believers in Conor Oberst, too much is never enough.

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