Bright Eyes (Contemporary Musicians)
By the time Conor Oberst was 22 years old, he had won critical praise as the boy genius behind Bright Eyes and had been dubbed the Bob Dylan of the Ritalin generation. Bright Eyes features a revolving lineup of musicians, ranging from two to 15 pieces, with Oberst at its artistic center. In just five years, the band released three full-length albums and several EPs on Saddle Creek, an independent label in Omaha, Nebraska. With the release of Lifted, or: The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground in 2002, however, the young singer-songwriter received critical attention from the mainstream press that lifted record sales. Oberst seemed nonplussed and continued to tour small venues. "As far as fame or something, I don't know," he told Richard Cromelin in the Los Angeles Times, "it's not something I would ever consider how to get more of."
Oberst was born in 1980 to Matthew, a Mutual of Omaha manager, and Nancy Oberst, an elementary school principal. He attended a Catholic preparatory school and spent his spare time making amateur movies and acting in a local theater. "He was always hamming it up and singing from the time he was two," his mother told Gavin Edwards in Rolling Stone. At ten, he started learning guitar, and as soon as he knew two chords, started writing songs. He listened to his father's record collection of classic rock acts that included Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, then delved into his brother's collection of Sonic Youth, Replacements, and R.E.M. "It was always apparent," Robb Nensel, president of Saddle Creek, told Cromelin, "from the first time you saw him when he was 13 up there strumming and singing that there was something going on."
Oberst recorded his first album at 13 on his father's four-track reel-to-reel recorder. At 14 he formed Commander Venus with several friends and they recorded two albums. He attended a local coffeehouse called Kilgore's with his friend Nensel, where they learned by watching other singer-songwriters. Oberst would later attend the University of Nebraska, although he dropped out after three semesters to tour. After Commander Venus broke up, Oberst and his friends formed Saddle Creek Records to release albums by Bright Eyes and other local groups. "The label splits the money 50-50 with the bands," Oberst told Pagan Kennedy in the New York Times Magazine. "There's no paperwork. It's trust."
In 1998 Bright Eyes released their first album, A Collection of Songs: Recorded 1995-1997. "Even at a young age," Nathan Bush wrote of A Collection of Songs in All Music Guide, "It's clear that Oberst is an extremely talented songwriter, seemingly incapable of penning a bad tune." That same year, Bright Eyes also issued Letting off the Happiness, his second full-length album. "This is a powerful record," wrote Peter J. D'Angelo in All Music Guide, "that has the ability to reach inside and identify with the listener." Yancey Strickler, of All Music Guide, called Bright Eyes' 1999 EP, Every Day and Every Night, "the best singer/songwriter record in ten years."
These early lo-fi recordings compared favorably to albums by Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal, and critics applauded the maturity of Oberst's literate compositions. "I guess I write a lot about my life," he told Derek Simmonsen in the Washington Times. "The point isn't to confess anything to anybody. I have a basic truth to the song and hopefully it's pretty universal so that everyone can understand it." His emotional delivery and willingness to experiment in the studio also gave his recordings distinction.
With the release of Lifted, or: The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, approval of Bright Eyes' artistic vision reached critical mass. "It was orchestral pop with a rambling, shambling feel, blending dusty country waltzes," wrote Natalie Nichols in the Los Angeles Times, "'60s folkie idealism and post-punk eccentricity into a simple, elegant tapestry of emotional need and release." The album made many critics' top ten lists for 2002. "At 22, to release one of the most vital albums of the year would be remarkable enough," wrote David Peschek in the Guardian, "that the album is the 10th release by Bright Eyes is extraordinary."
Oberst underwent a period of substance abuse, a time, he told Rolling Stone, when he didn't worry about consequences. He reached a turning point on December 17, 2000, however, after drinking a magnum of whiskey in Chicago. The following morning, suffering from withdrawal, he checked himself into a hospital and remained there for four days. Following this incident, he drank less and began to develop better strategies for dealing with his depression. "I saw people not make it through those timeshen you see somebody either end their life intentionally or through drugs and alcohol, it kind of loses its attraction," he told Pescheck.
In 2001 Oberst and several friends formed Desaparecidos and released Read Music/Speak Spanish in 2002. Kennedy called it "an odd and amazing artifact, a rock album that examines the sociopolitics of urban sprawl." Oberst has also toured with different versions of Bright Eyes, including a six-girl backing band dressed in powder-blue suits, and a 15-piece band consisting of keyboards, cellos, and vibraphones.
Despite increased record sales and critical acclaim, fame seems to have made little impression on Oberst. When Lifted sold 35,000 copies, a number of major labels attempted to sign Bright Eyes; Oberst turned each one down. "I don't have a problem with anyone that wants to be on a major label," he told Cromelin, "but for me their expectations of success are so completely different than mine in every way that it's not logical to do that." Brisk record sales, however, have brought in more money. Oberst bought a house with two cousins and collaborators, but his share of the mortgage is only $300 per month. He also purchased a new van, but continues to drive a 1990 Honda that shakes. "As long as I can buy records and books and musical equipment and maybe some clothes, I'm pretty stoked," he told Edwards. "I don't need a yacht or anything."
A Collection of Songs: Recorded 1995-1997, Saddle Creek, 1998.
Letting off the Happiness, Saddle Creek, 1998.
Every Day and Every Night (EP), Saddle Creek, 2000.
Fevers and Mirrors, Saddle Creek, 2000.
I Will Be Grateful for This Day (EP), Sub Pop, 2001.
Lifted, or: The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Saddle Creek, 2002.
There Is No Beginning to The Story (EP), Saddle Creek, 2002.
(With Desaparecidos) Read Music/Speak Spanish, Saddle Creek, 2002.
Guardian (London, England), November 27, 2002, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2002, p. E-31; Oct 12, 2002, p. F-1.
New York Times Magazine, November 17, 2002, p. 42.
Rolling Stone, October 24, 2002.
Washington Times, September 21, 2002, p. D 04.
"Bright Eyes," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 15, 2003).
Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.