We need a record of our failures, yes we must document our love

Years active: Genres: Related artists:
1997 -> Indie Rock, Singer/Songwriter n/a

Line-up: At the core and center of everything below is Conor Oberst, whose solo project Bright Eyes began as: over the years other people have come, gone and returned, too many to list here. However after a certain point - once the side projects started racking up - Oberst decided that Bright Eyes officially consists of himself, Mike Mogis (guitars, production, misc instruments, 1998 onwards) and Nathaniel "Nate" Walcott (piano, keyboards, horns, 2005-) and thus any Oberst-helmed project which featured all three men would specifically always be a Bright Eyes release. I'll talk more about both men below but excluding them from the profile photo isn't throwing shade against their contributions but instead it's, well...

... because this isn't really a Bright Eyes page per se, but rather a section of the site dedicated to the life and works of Mr Oberst himself. Bright Eyes is Oberst's main legacy and features (spoilers) both his most essential as well as qualitatively best music, but he also has a myriad of side projects which despite their stylistic changes are all intrinsically linked by his distinctive voice and style of songwriting. Enough so that it makes sense to view it all as part of a wider umbrella, and for a while I did genuinely contemplate arranging this page completely chronologically, jumping between groups to form one gigantic discography. But that's a little too chaotic, and I do like order - and besides, as alluded to, if you want to get a sense of who Oberst is as a musician and as a songwriter, it's going to be Bright Eyes where you're heading anyway. So, the moniker of the page falls under his most recognised project for that reason but I've gathered everything relevant to Oberst within this single page rather than split these across the site because, let's face it, if you are bitten by the Bright Eyes bug then Oberst's supplementary pages are the logical next step anyway.

(that said, in terms of actually writing the reviews for this page, I decided to approach that on a chronological basis so if you want to hunt for that thin connecting contextual string, feel free to click around the page based on release dates)

In all honesty, it's only logical that this page exists on this site in itself. The center of my tastes revolve around what's colloquially considered "indie rock" (and alternative rock) and if that's the case for anyone, Bright Eyes is going to pop up sooner or later. Oberst is one of the defining voices of so many of the various branches of that wider stylistic tree: not just in the obvious realm of indie singer/songwriters - the guys with acoustic guitars and sad songs - but his influence is all over Midwest Emo too. There's also the "Omaha sound", the scene of slightly americana/country-tinged slowcore-adjacent indie which Bright Eyes and their signature label Saddle Creek (which was originally set up by Mike Mogis and Oberst's brother) were in the center of. If there's a wordy, melancholy troubadour then Bright Eyes are inevitably going to be in their list of influences. Part of his level of influence is due to just how early he got into the game: he was a child prodigy who released his first demo album at the age of 13 and churned out music non-stop from thereon afterwards. He was only 18 when the proper Bright Eyes debut was released and his productivity continued in the shape of various EPs (enough to warrant their own section, and I don't even own them all), compilation appearances and regular albums - all which had the same flair from the very beginning.

Oberst is the archtypical highly literate songwriter who will strum his guitar for minutes as he lays out one hefty paragraph after another, his voice affected and underlined by warbling emotion be it bursts of anguished screaming or surrendered sadness. That was especially the case in the earlier years of the project when Bright Eyes was just primarily Oberst and whoever happened to be around that day, and some of the earlier Bright Eyes recordings can definitely be a love it/hate it kind of matter depending on how much that kind of emotional rambling works for the listener. In the later years as the group became more defined and their sound became more expansive and detailed, some of that either toned down or simply changed: the older Oberst has stayed just as lyrical but his language has become subtler or more referentual, influenced by underlying concepts or themes that bind his works together and in turn sometimes writing with a more oblique touch instead of the bluntly confessional voice of his youth. He's still just as confessional and intimate as a listener, but able to accentuate the emotion in the lyrics with means other than just increasing the volume he sings them.

That aforementioned expansion of sound is where Mogis and Walcott come in play. As mentioned Mogis was a friend of Oberst's brother and the founding member of Saddle Creek, Oberst's label, and through that quickly became involved with Bright Eyes. He's an all-around instrumental busybody in studio and on stage but his arguably most important contribution to the more defined Bright Eyes formula is his production, staying as the group's go-to producer since his arrival and originally helping to establish a certain kind of recording aesthetic for the project, evolving beyond scruffy lo-fi fuzz of the very earliest Bright Eyes releases. Walcott joined as a helping hand around 2005 when the first big experimental sound jump within the Bright Eyes collective took place and has stuck around since, sticking behind keyboards and adjacent instruments and thus enabling the group's sound to evolve into a more layered form. There's enough of a significant (and audible) change between the early pseudo-solo albums and the later, post-established Bright Eyes albums that Oberst turning Bright Eyes officially into a trio project makes perfect sense. And of course, I have no real preferences here: the more ramshackle earlier recordings are just as dear to me as the more "professional", more distinctly produced later works, and if anything the latter has allowed Oberst's songwriting to evolve to match suit and made it all the more intricate in its core.

As for all the side projects, I'll make a point about writing a short intro for each of them to talk about the wider context, but suffice to say they're still Oberst through and through - at least the ones where he remains front and center rather than gives up the spotlight to be just "part of the band". The ones that aren't just im promptu collaborations mainly exist to delve deeper into particular aspects of his writing that might not be as applicable for Bright Eyes and which most certainly can avoid the pressure that comes with a Bright Eyes album given their status as an Indie 101 act. His eponymous solo records are for most parts more relaxed and casual than his main group (for most parts), Desaparecidos gives him the chance to be as angry and shouty as he can possibly be, and even something like Better Oblivion Community Center feels like a soft return to a more familiar Oberst tone without the weight of his legacy on the album cover. There's a reason why I've been gathering all this extracurricular material and that's because most of it is genuinely worth hearing, and if you're a fan of Oberst they're practically unmissable. The most radical experiments are, funnily enough, reserved for Bright Eyes so the side projects tend not to bring too many surprises from that perspective, but Oberst's songwriting and persona stay as strong as ever.

As far as personal influence and importance goes, Oberst is pretty high up there. Bright Eyes kept cropping up in various relevant lists and recommendations as I began my wider music exploration towards the US indie music in my teens, and inevitably became one of the first acts I started to look into - it didn't take long for me to be captivated both by the songs and the man who performed them with such tangible passion. Oberst is also one of my favourite wordsmiths and the reason why I've grown to have an affection for similar writers who treat their song verses like short essays: more isn't more as a rule of thumb but every word Oberst puts down always matters. He creates such vivid scenes with his phrasing that it makes the time spent staring at the lyrics sheets all worth it - plus sometimes you kind of have to just to understand all the words he managed to stick into a couple of chord changes, or to tweak onto the delightful meta elements he sometimes cheekily scatters in. Combine that with some seriously strong songwriting skills which (after the very, very beginning) don't rely solely on the words per minute counter and you've got one of the most defining voices of both his genre umbrella as well as his generation overall. His collected back catalogue is a wildly scattered treasure trove (sometimes behind a real hunt as well), and, well, I guess thank you in advance for taking time to read all of what's below.

Releases I own but not reviewed here: the "companion" EPs that were released alongside the 2022/2023 back catalogue reissues, which featured new re-recordings of each album's material. Very fascinating but I'd struggle writing indepth about every single one of them. Maybe if they release a CD boxset...

Main chronology:


Side projects:

Conor Oberst

Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band


Monsters of Folk

Better Oblivion Community Center


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1997 5 "Falling Out of Love at This Volume", "Driving Fast Through a Big City at Night", "I Watched You Taking Off"

1) The Invisible Gardener; 2) Patient Hope in New Snow; 3) Saturday as Usual; 4) Falling Out of Love at This Volume; 5) Exaltation on a Cool, Kitchen Floor; 6) The Awful Sweetness of Escaping Sweat; 7) Puella Quam Amo Est Pulchra; 8) Driving Fast Through a Big City at Night; 9) How Many Lights Do You See?; 10) I Watched You Taking Off; 11) A Celebration Upon Completion; 12) Emily, Sing Something Sweet; 13) All of the Truth; 14) One Straw (Please); 15) Lila; 16) A Few Minutes on Friday; 17) Supriya; 18) Solid Jackson; 19) Feb. 15th; 20) The 'Feel Good' Revolution

An aspiring singer/songwriter records a set of demos, gets his brother to release them. Quaint, admirable, but by no means essential.

I feel I'm a little unfair on Oberst for plastering this first and foremost on this page, not to mention giving it a relatively low rating and labelling it with the dreaded "weakest!" tag on top of it. But, he only has himself to blame because this is the official start for Bright Eyes, having been released on Saddle Creek as a debut album of sorts - though if it wasn't for the family connections to the label I don't think this would have seen a "proper" light of day in any other circumstance. This is ultimately just a ragtag collection of demos from a literal teenager (Oberst would have been 15-17 during the title's date range) recording material in his basement, the likes of which you'd typically find in the bonus material for a 25th anniversary reissue. As the rather unimaginative title so clearly lays out, this isn't really an album either but just a collection of songs, like a dumping ground. But Oberst himself would have been fully aware of all of that anyway: my CD issue is part of the second print released only a year after the first run and even that early on, the liner notes have included a dismissive review of the album which questions the worth of the entire release. You do that if you find some sort of subversive humour in including such a passage with your own release, but also because you fully know it's all true.

What makes A Collection of Songs... stumble is its sheer length. Twenty songs and nearly 70 minutes is way too many early lo-fi scraps of a promising songwriter to get through, no matter how clear it is that there's potential in this young man. Many of these songs boil down to Oberst strumming an acoustic guitar and mumbling lyrics unclearly, sometimes screaming them out but this is before he learned to use his screaming effectively so the effect here is mainly ear-piercing. A couple of these are fine in moderation but throwing one after another after another is an endurance test. I wouldn't call anything here actively bad but they are sketches and songwriting exercises at best - the fact that Oberst never came back to any of these apart from "Feb 15th." (later reincarnated as the non-album bonus cut "Happy Birthday to Me (Feb. 15)") speaks its own language. That one is also arguably one of the better melancholy musings of the album but at track 19 the fatigue has started to set in a long before you actually reach it. The formula is tried and tested and many future Bright Eyes classics would be built on these exact same ideas; but these are the practice runs that were required to get to that point, and after the initial curiosity value has faded away you're left with a lot of hissy tape ballads with indistinguishable melodies.

The most pleasant surprise is that while the bulk of this album is just Oberst and his guitar, in-between you can actually find a decent amount of range scattered around, and some of it's actually quite good too - though the mere fact that they differ so much stylistically is probably giving them an unfair advantage in standing up from the crowd. A couple of the songs find Oberst playing around with drum machines and cheap keyboards and they're the best (and/or most memorable) songs on the album: that includes the instrumental "The Invisible Gardener" which invents mid-00s twee synth pop on the spot, "Driving Fast Through a Big City at Night" navigates through hectic movie dialogue samples on top of a hectic beat and is eerily reminiscent of early M83 of all things, and "Falling Out of Love at This Volume" is a perky pop/rocker that has the heart and hooks to be something bigger than its budget drum machine affords it to be, but still manages to be the one song close to something genuinely excellent here. Some of the songs feature actual drums behind Oberst and they do provide some additional dynamics that the album so sorely needs: "I Watched You Taking Off" is spiritually a post-punk song interpreted through an acoustic lens, "The Awful Sweetness of Escaping Sweat" and "Emily, Sing Something Sweet" are what the first proper Bright Eyes would be moulded on and "Solid Jackson" is just a lovely singalong - or would be if it didn't sound like someone's falling all over the drum kit every now and then. I'd be hard-pressed to call any of them a real stand-out but you can catch a glimpse of the Oberst we know and love starting to peek his head around the corner.

But like said, in a way it feels wrong to knock off too many points from this because I don't think it ever had any aspirations beyond just Oberst wanting to make his jump to the world of music a little more official by dumping a scattershot pile of songs onto a CD through his brother's label. An established Bright Eyes fan will approach this like a prehistoric museum item and treat it accordingly; even if you love the rawer and rougher side of Bright Eyes of the first couple of albums, the quality control here is still so all over the place that at least a good half of the 70-minute ride is going to vanish from the mind the moment the songs are over. It's more of an optional prologue rather than the real start of the Bright Eyes saga, and it's one you don't need to hear to understand the rest of the story.

Physically: Jewel case (with a white spine), with a small booklet containing all the lyrics crammed in the centerfold.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1998 7 "Touch", "June on the West Coast", "A Poetic Retelling of an Unfortunate Seduction"

1) If Winter Ends; 2) Padraic My Prince; 3) Contrast and Compare; 4) The City Has Sex; 5) The Difference in the Shades; 6) Touch; 7) June on the West Coast; 8) Pull My Hair; 9) A Poetic Retelling of an Unfortunate Seduction; 10) Tereza and Tomas; 11) Contrast and Compare (Alternative Version) [hidden track]

Rough around the edges but the familiar Bright Eyes are already present here.

If you want a concrete example of how a good producer can help a musician - and even more specifically, to understand just what Mike Mogis' key role is in Bright Eyes - then it's listening to A Collection of Songs... and Letting Off the Happiness back to back. The two albums were released barely a year after one another and quite obviously Oberst has remained mostly the same between the two albums - as romantically emo and youthfully tragic as he ever got - but Letting Off the Happiness pulls his talents into focus. The songs themselves aren't million miles away from the early demos but how they've been presented and curated here announce the arrival of a fully-fledged songwriter and performer. The sound is a little fuller and wider to add some colour around the songs, and the clearly self-written liner notes frequently praise Mogis' role in bringing it all together. The result is that Bright Eyes come into the world almost fully formed here: signs of everything since can be easily traced here as the ground zero.

What gives this away as the humble beginnings (and from hereon in we can start ignoring A Collection of Songs... and start treating this as the real debut album) is just the general roughness around the edges and how Oberst hasn't committed to a particular style or theme for the album. In respect of the former aspect, as hinted earlier Mogis unofficially becomes part of the Bright Eyes inner circle from this album onwards and acts as the gateway for Oberst to expand his arrangements, but we're still talking about a lo-fi indie affair here so the songs are mostly haphazard live-in-basement takes with imperfections baked in and minimal overdubs to fix them. It's nothing that affects the album negatively and if anything, it lends the record a suitably intimate charm which works well with this kind of hyper-emotional pseudo-confessionals storytelling, but the album does still sound like it's barely holding together at the seams and sometimes the rough spots are just rough spots. The fact that there's none of the usual thematic threads running through the album that would become a Bright Eyes staple also contributes to its generally unkempt aesthetic, and so when in the middle of the cosily depressed acoustic laments "The City Has Sex" bursts through with its midwest emo rock & roll noise and when "Touch" and "Pull My Hair" suddenly tune up the keyboards and offer a proto-synth pop version of Bright Eyes this early on, it's a genuine surprise that retains the shock element going forward. It's the positive kind of variety though, a sign of Oberst wanting to take bigger leaps in establishing his own musical voice to stand out in the crowded sea of sad guys with acoustic guitars.

The latter two songs in particular also highlight the growth in Oberst's songwriting compared to the initial recordings. It's present throughout the album but particularly visible in the growing tension of "Touch" (which effectively previews Digital Ash in a Digital Urn before it was even a glimmer in Oberst's eye= and more directly in the big fist-pumping chorus of "Pull My Hair" which jumps out as such an extrovert power move in an otherwise introverted album. The songs are generally more intricate with carefully expansive arrangements, stronger melodies and some subtle nods between songs just for that extra flair, and it's only the scruffy recording quality that at places separates the material from the more famous Bright Eyes albums. Oberst is also much more confident as a frontman, knowing when to throw himself in (the finale of the initially placid "If Winter Ends", which is such a Bright Eyes establishing move and it's great to hear it on the debut too), when to reel himself back for a more chillingly calm effect ("Tereza and Tomas") and when to just let his hair down and act natural (the breezy solo spot and palate cleanser "June on the West Coast" - full of charisma and drawing power even with a skeletal backdrop). Sometimes he tries a little too hard and his attempts at the eventually-signature yelpy screams are moreso earpiercing than emotionally purging, and that unintentional over-the-topness extends to the lyrics too. While the occasional item like "June on the West Coast" (which is a classic example of a Bright Eyes acoustic spot in both music and word through and through) proves his strengths, a lot of the material on this album is so intentionally as depressing as it can get that it's borderline comedic, with "Padraic My Prince" in particular taking the cake with its imaginary dead baby story. It's very teenager-like - which, to be fair, Oberst was.

Admittedly a lot of this review is constantly comparing Letting Off the Happiness either directly with its predecessor, or more vaguely with the whole of what's to come in the future - but that reflects the album's nature and standing pretty accurately. Aside from the few obvious signs of Bright Eyes still being slightly a work in progress here Letting Off the Happiness holds up well, but I also feel like it's most interesting after you've familiarised yourself with the rest of the Bright Eyes ouevre and can play a game of musical archaeology with this one. I say that from experience, because I used to treat this with general indifference for a long time until I had become intimately familiar with everything else, at which point the album began to click and the songs started standing up for themselves, but even then it mostly stands as a prelude of things to come. The tracks themselves on Letting Off the Happiness are generally good, occasionally even close to great - the only relatively weak song here is the alternative version of "Contrast and Compare" appearing as the hidden track, which sounds like a rough demo of the leisurely slowcore-y original. The simple truth is though that whatever the album's strengths are, the next couple of Bright Eyes releases act as an extension of everything here and simply do it all better, so Letting Off the Happiness ends up falling by the wayside a little bit by no fault of its own. But even so, if you allow it to just fade away into the back of the discography then you'll miss out on music that's still thoroughly solid, played with the messy charm of close collaborators making noise together in various rooms. The second half of the album in particular is a great ramp-up to the discography to come: between the textural and bombastic "Touch" and "Pull My Hair", the dramatic "A Poetic Retelling of an Unfortunate Seduction" that subtly builds up very powerfully until it explodes, the simple but resonant "June on the West Coast" and the understatedly aching "Tereza and Tomas", you effectively have a set of teasers for so many stands of where the future goes and it's exciting to hear the threads form in real time. Ultimately they're good songs too, marking a confident and enjoyable start for Bright Eyes, rough exterior and all.

Physically: Jewel case, once again with a white spine (which I'm starting to realise might be a signature move for early Saddle Creek releases?). All lyrics in a booklet, and song-by-song credits typed by Oberst with various scene-setting trivia and opinions to give an idea of the context these recordings took place in.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2000 8 "The Calendar Hung Itself...", "Something Vague", "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh"

1) A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever, and a Necklace; 2) A Scale, a Mirror and Those Indifferent Clocks; 3) The Calendar Hung Itself...; 4) Something Vague; 5) The Movement of a Hand; 6) Arienette; 7) When the Curious Girl Realizes She Is Under Glass; 8) Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh; 9) The Center of the World; 10) Sunrise, Sunset; 11) An Attempt to Tip the Scales; 12) A Song to Pass the Time

Theatrical to a self-aware degree but if you get past that, the songs and the layout speak for themselves.

There's a gradual build-up across the last couple of Bright Eyes releases - EPs included - from this starting out as Oberst's bedroom project and going towards something bigger and more meaningful, and each step on the way has had a firm enough hold in the essentials that you could very well identify threads starting from them and stretching the rest of the discography to come. But the one thing that was missing from the releases prior to Fevers and Mirrors was the sense of cohesion, a grasp at a thematic (or a pseudo-thematic) connecting line between the songs to make them feel like they belong together to form a musical narrative. The Every Day and Every Night EP was a practice run at just that and Fevers and Mirrors directly continues from there, and so we finally reach the launching point for what any new release under the Bright Eyes moniker will come to mean (for real this time). There's the unified production across all songs (for most parts) as well as the frequent segues from one song to another which build on from the EP, but the most surefire sign of this being the formal launch of the project is that long, patience-testing intro, a signature of nearly every Bright Eyes release from hereon in: here it's in the form of a long soundcheck with a child's reading lesson layered on top, going on for what feels like ages until Oberst's voice and guitar come picking through. But it does what a good intro is ought to do: it whets the appetite, it builds up the suspense and it gives a hint that the artist is trying to think on a bigger scale. There is a theme this time around, too - and that's Bright Eyes themselves.

If you want to boil down Fevers and Mirrors to its very core characteristic, it's that Conor Oberst is hungry for more and he's going in all guns blazing. The soundworld of the album is cosily homespun - mid-fi if you will - but the vision behind it is so much more than that. Stylistically Oberst is going all over the place from feverishly twitchy rockers and gentle americana-twinged ballads to restless piano pieces and theatrical acoustic renderings of midwest emo; within those songs he's then building connecting threads, referencing other songs as well his former works, laying down tracks that could lead you to at least think there's a deeper connection between the separate parts. It's an album that acts like it has a narrative and it crafts a dramatic story arc through music to match it, and the chosen tale here is the nature of Bright Eyes themselves and Oberst's growing reputation as a romantically sad young talent: practically responding to the expectations by emphasising those rollercoaster emotions and detailed melancholy storytelling so much it becomes a character for him to inhabit. If you were to flip a coin with its heads and tails being obnoxiously self-aware pretension and overbearingly earnest emotion, athen Fevers and Mirrors cheekily lands on the side, teasing about which way it's going to fall on. Oberst has always been open about his depression and the less favourable parts of it life, and his poetic tellings of it are a big reason why he's so well-regarded as both a lyricist and songwriter, but on Fevers and Mirrors he behaves like an actor staging a play, laying on the melodramatics - tactfully, admittedly - and on his already caricatured image as the troubled artist. It's like a concept album about a tragic songwriter.

This isn't (just) some tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorycrafting on my part - what brings me to this conclusion is the infamous and opinion-dividing skit tucked sneakily in the end of "An Attempt to Tip the Scales". The fake interview between the fake radio DJ and fake Oberst ultimately is just Oberst having a bit of fun with his own image and the following he had began to build, and I'm sure it absolutely irritates a lot of his fans for that reason alone, but it lays out the "concept" of Fevers and Mirrors out in the open. It's like the scene at the end of a whimsical detective story where the protagonist unveils their deduction and the audiences sees flashbacks to earlier parts of the story that now make a new kind of sense as the motive gets uncovered; you could even see the title as a hyperliteral meta-nod towards the scene-setting opening duo (of which one is called "A Scale, a Mirror and Those Indifferent Clocks" after all), as an attempt to deconstruct what the start of the album promised. The skit is long enough to start wearing thin and becomes almost unbearably embarrassing as "Oberst" starts upping the sadboy act, but it downright acts as the epic climax of the album, just instead of a big singalong chorus on repeat it's the two actors beginning to break character (at which point the skit becomes genuinely funny again). The gentle goodbye of "A Song to Pass the Time" then arrives, segueing flawlessly from the interview, to wave the listener off formally and it comes with the exact same scaling-down feeling of a quiet acoustic closer after a bombastic 10-minute jam finale. It tests the listener's patience and I genuinely do not blame anyone who'd want it off the album, but it fits in so well as the last piece of the album's thematic puzzle that over time, like a victim suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, I've come to find it an essential part of the journey and never skip it.

The reason Oberst gets away with all this pretentious, meta-textual bullshit is also because he's such a great songwriter. Fevers and Mirrors is his best set of songs yet and the way they come together, so gracefully leading from one to another like true chapters of the same book, makes them stand out even more impressively. Oberst's desire to take his craft further isn't just epitomised by the moves he takes in making the album an album, it's also in the significant levelling up he's done with his songwriting. It's more poignant, melodically driven and vibrant than it's ever been - the increased scope of the arrangements arguably helps there too, but most of the songs now grow into different places as they unfold across their length, unlike e.g. the songs on Letting Off the Happiness which typically ended exactly where they had started. That emphasis on the more immediately engaging nature of the album arrives almost immediately with the joyously melodic "A Scale, a Mirror and Those Indifferent Clocks", which sounds like a grand credits roll but appears as the very second song and effectively is the bright and bombastic outro to the quiet opener; "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh" later on then takes that sense of melody to its logical conclusion by being a veritable indie anthem with Oberst's most alluring chorus to date (complete with such a well-done build-up in tension and release that it's like from a classic songwriter's textbook). The tenser and darker moments also bear the same shine, like how "The Calendar Hung Itself" is breathlessly manic and exhiliratingly chaotic like a piece of ramshackle indie punk but lays out its hooks in the open and has some of the most deliciously quotable lines on the album all thanks to Oberst's scene-chewing delivery, and the soft-grunge guitar walls of "The Center of the World" bring a vividly grand crunch into the record's soundscape. The keyboard and hip-hop-esque drum beat of "The Movement of a Hand" is like a quick test run towards one of the next album's centrepiece songs but its wooziness and fragility give its own heart; "When the Curious Girl Realizes She's Under Glass" also brings the keys front and centre by being entirely piano-lead, but it practically frolics on the ivories like a harpsichord tuned to a wrong sound setting. Its lo-fi fuzz is massively distinctive from the rest of the album's production but together with the bright melodic bounce, it makes the song unforgettable and arresting. "Something Vague" meanwhile pares down all the tricks and twists and simply presents an earnest, beautiful slow-tempo moment of melancholy - and it's simply gorgeous.

In other words, Oberst is making sure each song not just works well with the rest but also stands out stronger on their own two feet than anything he's written before this; and in fact, it's the songs that acome closest to his earlier works that also end up being the less exciting ones of the crowd here, with the melodrama of "Arienette"a little too on the nose and the back-and-forth melodic sway of "Sunrise, Sunset" is just a musical trick that I'm not a huge fan of, and so both feel like carryovers from an earlier pile of songs. The music is excellent, but the (perceived?) meta-thread hanging over the album is a more complex matter. I prefer my Oberst more sincere in his delivery, regardless of the mood he's in, but I also can't criticise the album too much over whether or it not its emotional heights and dramatic push feel scripted. Fevers and Mirrors finds Oberst leaning into his most perceived - stereotypical perhaps - traits but he does it with such gusto that it shows how well he's mastered that approach. Or in other words, the album openly displays a lot of the characteristics that makes him such a charismatic performer, dramatised or not. This whole theatre around the album's emotional ups and downs is also what gives it its own flair and, in all honesty, is one of the reasons I keep returning to it. This, together with the general high quality of the songs, makes the album an unexpectedly entertaining listen despite it presenting itself as a moody singer/songwriter's album. It's a ballsy move to pull a move like this so early in an artist's career, but Oberst makes it work: Fevers and Mirrors is like a template of its genre and style, and that's what makes it so enjoyable to dig into.

Physically: Jewel case, though this time with a transparent spine. Booklet opens up to the full set of lyrics and photos of everyone involved. I do want to give a shout out to the design of the front of the CD itself, all coloured akin to the cover except for the mirror - which is of course kept uncovered so the CD's natural reflective surface can act as a literal mirror. It's perhaps an obvious trick, but a neat design detail nonetheless.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2002 10 "Method Acting", "Bowl of Oranges", "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)"

1) The Big Picture; 2) Method Acting; 3) False Advertising; 4) You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will.; 5) Lover I Don't Have to Love; 6) Bowl of Oranges; 7) Don't Know When But a Day Is Gonna Come; 8) Nothing Gets Crossed Out; 9) Make War; 10) Waste of Paint; 11) From a Balance Beam; 12) Laura Laurent; 13) Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)

Big, bold and bombastic definition of the very essence of Bright Eyes.

You could quite easily argue the case that Lifted is the quintessential Bright Eyes album: even if it's not your personal favourite, it's hard to deny that this doesn't capture the very essence of Oberst's music most accurately out of anything he's done. From a stylistic point of view this is exact centre of the crossroads of indie rock, folk and americana that makes up Bright Eyes' musical DNA, and it's presented with the kind of production aesthetic that could be called their signature sound. But it's representative in spirit, as well - Oberst finalises his songwriting voice and perfects his delivery here, and as that development is still fresh as it's been captured here, there's a fresh-faced pureness to its emotional bite. He casts out big emotions in a language that's both poetic and romantically exaggerated, yet told with so much character and personality that it feels vividly real, blurring the lines between fact and fiction while urging you to believe it's all the former. This is what Bright Eyes' magic is built around, and this is where it flows so poignantly that it may as well describe the wider mission statement of the project.

Lifted in general sounds like it's intentionally out to define its purpose, like it has something to prove. Its core ideas are familiar from previous releases, Fevers and Mirrors in particular, with both the musical approach as well as the meta/contextual elements i.e. the songs referencing back to each other (here with the constant use of "lifting" and other recurring lyrical topics), the overall thematic connectivity and the tightly segued transitions between songs. The way it's presented on Lifted however, everything's been supersized. The album is a hefty 73 minutes long epoch and that size is achieved by extended song lengths where every minute is crammed full of novella-sized lyrics and deftly growing and transforming arrangements; the album sets the tone by opening with just short of nine minutes of Oberst's acoustic preaching transitioning from the back of the car to the studio, including three minutes of just that initial ambient backdrop, and appropriately finishes with a ten-minute showstopper finale. The list of players involved is over twice the size of the list of helping hands on previous albums, with elaborate string- and other arrangements colouring Oberst's melodies in a myriad of ways. Lifted has a lot to say and it yearns to be heard, and how it goes about it makes it impossible to ignore: it's a tidal wave of midwest emo-come-folk looming above the listener waiting to crash down. It can be a bit much but that's precisely the point - it aims to be larger than life. If a record could ever intentionally sound like it wants to be the kind of album that becomes a real lifeline for countless people, even if it isn't that for you, this is exactly what this is like. Lifted feels important.

And... I guess it is, as well. Typically I do try to review music with a more descriptive and "timeless" angle so that what I write doesn't date the moment I release it into the world, but it was genuinely in the binge-revisit ahead of this review that I realised just how much Lifted actually lifts me. This was among the very first Bright Eyes albums I ever heard - I can't remember the exact order anymore - all the way back in the latter half of the 2000s, so it's been with me a while - it was also one of the key albums in my early ventures into the rich world of US indie as my anglophile phase was starting to wear off, and so in that sense it's been a very establishing record for my listening habits. I went into it blind and ended up being absorbed by it, and that appreciation has never really dimmed over the years - from the day I started rating music in the internet this has always had high scores next to its name. But, so, whenever I start writing a review these days I spend a week or so with the release in question, listening to it in a myriad of ways ahead of pinning down my ought-to-be-final thoughts on it, and it was during a quiet and focused listen through the headphones during the week around writing this down that it struck me just how close and familiar the album felt for me; I found myself considering how long it's been in my life and how sneakily pivotal it had been in expanding my musical worldview, which isn't something I've ever really thought about because it was some of the other Bright Eyes albums that had a more visceral impact on me. It was an emotional realisation, in a good way - it was almost like hearing the album through a new set of ears again. At that point I fell down the rabbit hole of self-indulgent rambling as it became clear that the only way to really dissect this album's strengths is through a disguised blog post, rather than through any kind of sensible analytical insight.

The funny thing is that despite all the above, what might just summarise the charms of Lifted the best - what I found myself thinking over and over again during my recent revisit - is how it's always trying to change within its songs even to the extent of trying to surprise the listener. The extensive scale of both the album and the songs isn't just for show, it's to show off what an intricate songwriter Oberst has become and the larger setpieces offer more space for that to come across, as he's bursting through the stylistic ceiling of being just a mopey guy with an acoustic guitar and transforms into a more multifaceted and -layered writer and arranger. Lifted is constantly throwing out ideas that, once they've happened, you come back to them in acknowledgment that the band just pulled off something pretty neat, be that a genuine surprise or a move so well-executed that even if you were expecting it, it still fully delivered. Some of it more obviously telegraphed - you can practically tell from the start of "Don't Know When But a Day Is Gonna Come" that its quiet, emotionally rumbling murmur is eventually going to explode, and the change from scruffy lo-fi to a more finer studio polish when the band kicks in on "You? Will..." might have been a little more surprising if "The Big Picture" hadn't already done something similar, sans the band. But in either case when the twist does happen the impact is delivered so well you end up feeling a little impressed; and in fact if you do listen to this with a good set of headphones, the immensely detailed production sneakily foreshadows a lot of what will eventually occur but only if you pay attention, which is what makes it even sweeter. Mogis really steps up with his role as the court producer of all things Bright Eyes on Lifted and this album, perhaps above any other Bright Eyes album, highlights the touch he brings to the project.

Elsewhere there is a genuine sense of, if not left-turns, then keeping the listener on their toes in various different levels and ways. The more overt examples being the emo hip-hop tone (in the arrangement, not in Oberst's delivery) of the harrowingly cold "Lover I Don't Have to Love" which makes it a genuine odd bird even though it's one of the album's most prominent standouts, and the immediately following "Bowl of Oranges" is so earnestly positive that it's a legitimate plot twist on an album that's otherwise full of broken hopes and calmly accepted failures. There's also the smaller details like the sudden humour that cuts through the sadhearted waltz of "False Advertising", at the point when the music haphazardly breaks down as Oberst yells out for a mistake and is followed by a round of apologies before restarting, and how the tone of the words in "Make War" shifts so subtly from chorus to chorus that you end up re-reading the lyric sheet again just to appreciate it. Much like Mogis with his production, Oberst nails down both his lyrical voice and the tonal balance he strives for across the pages of Lifted. In some respect even the simple act of underestimating some of its songs counts as as a surprise, albeit admittedly that's more on my end: after all, I thought for the longest time that "Make War" and "Laura Laurent" were the obvious two cuts to make so that the record could be palatably shorter, because a couple of country-twanged mid-tempo drawls is maybe two too many in a tracklist of such girth. Part of that grand re-organisation of my thoughts was realising just how vividly these supposed weaker tracks had retained a place in my memory and why, with both overflowing with melodic grace and how "Make War" grows so subtly yet strongly with the aforementioned lyrical tension bubbling underneath, and how the thoroughly beautiful string-coated finale of "Laura Laurent" practically sweeps you off your feet. How could I even think about removing these when they resonate through my body just as much as my favourites?

There's a lot of songs on Lifted (maybe even all of them) that would deserve a special mention in a true track-by-track breakdown fashion if one wanted to go through that route - while it's a diverse and positively rambling album, the songs themselves are powerfully focused even as they go through their twists and turns, with some of Oberst's all-time best writing present throughout. "Waste of Paint" might be the ultimate barebones man-and-guitar moment of his and vividly shows how grippingly charismatic he is as a narrator with no kitchen sinks behind him, and likewise the explosive meta-level scene-setter "Method Acting" is among Bright Eyes' most stormingly fierce fireballs as Oberst breaks down the fourth wall and invites his band to come along; the brightly rollicking "Bowl of Oranges", the delicate and tender "Nothing Gets Crossed Out" and the anthemic "From a Balance Beam" meanwhile showcase the strengths of his more evocative and softer songwriting. Everything is deeply resonant, intimate and impassioned, as Oberst and his tagalong crew perform like their lives depended on it, as if there was only every one chance of capturing all this on tape before everything fades to black (the constant hints of apocalypse appearing across a number of songs admittedly colouring that thought). Nowhere is that more apparent than on "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)", the appropriately epic closer for an album this massive, flicking the dial up one more notch for one last time. Across a little over ten minutes Oberst spits out a litany of thoughts from unadornedly political (stripping down the album's poetry to blunt vitriol) to deeply personal, brief instrumental breaks allowing him to catch his breath before he goes on another extended rant before closing the album with something that vaguely feels like a morsel of hard-earned hope. If on Fevers and Mirrors Oberst acted like he was playing a role for an audience that wanted that character to be real, a lot of Lifted comes across unashamedly personal and true, thought whether it is or not is left open given how vague Oberst has been about the autobiographical factuality of his earlier works in particular. "Let's Not Shit Ourselves", though, is the ultimate celebration of this newfound emotional honesty, and I do mean a celebration - though its heart burns with fiery anger and bears itself vulnerably naked all the same, musically it's the final come-together for everyone to rejoice in gleeful abandon, raising one last glass before that aforementioned apocalypse happens. It's phenomenal, definitive, absolutely superlative.

All those words apply for the entire album, but I specifically want to focus on "definitive". Lifted isn't the best (or my favourite) Bright Eyes album but, as brought up at the start of all this, that doesn't prevent it from being the most definitive record of theirs. Within this frameset Oberst and his co-collaborators lay out the ruleset to the entire universe they've set to create, and save a couple of complete curveballs much of the rest of the back catalogue from here forwards are offshoots of select chosen ideas picked out of the countless presented here. If you want to summarise the sound, the ideas and ideals as well as the emotional soul of Bright Eyes, then it's Lifted you seek; and arguably it's that not just for Bright Eyes alone but for the whole strain of indie rock solo figureheads that followed in the wake of Lifted and who seem to have read through the rulebook Oberst presented, even if this album (bizarrely) hasn't been canonised to that effect. And beside all that, it's just a marvellous collection of music, both immediately resonant yet faithfully unwavering in its power no matter how many years go by as it took me to process just how meaningful it is. Absolutely essential for Bright Eyes and in many ways the furthest Oberst ever took the core formula, and despite all the sadness it carries in its lyrical heart you can hear the players being positively giddy with capturing its bombastic thrills on tape.

Physically: Clear jewel case with a thick booklet, all lyrics laid out on their own pages (often two pages) with plenty of space in-between, accompanied by a number of illustrations loosely inspired by some lyric lines and adjacent thoughts. Nothing groundbreaking, but one of those booklets that really show why physical media can be so satisfying.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2002 7 "Blue Christmas", "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

1) Away in a Manger; 2) Blue Christmas; 3) Oh Little Town of Bethlehem; 4) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; 5) The First Noël; 6) Little Drummer Boy; 7) White Christmas; 8) Silent Night; 9) Silver Bells; 10) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; 11) The Night Before Christmas

Have a miserable Christmas, everyone!

A lot of people seem to regard this as the world's most depressing Christmas album, or something along those lines; one of my friends memorably described the version of "Little Drummer Boy" as the only Christmas song that's made him want to slit his wrists. But I don't think that's quite the right take for this. No one who wants to make something genuinely sad decides that the best way to go about it is a Christmas album, especially wholly one made out of seasonal classics. Playing festive tunes in minor scales and downbeat tempos isn't something you do just for the sake it it, it's a conscious twisting of the familiar melodies. It might just be my skewed understanding of what sad is (thanks, years of emo white guys with guitars in my CD player) but mopey as it may be, the Bright Eyes Christmas album is hilarious in its wallowing. It sounds like Oberst taking his reputation as a depressing singer/songwriter and deciding to have a laugh with it, by creating a Christmas album so over-the-top in its moodiness that it's borderline comedic. I don't know the true story behind the album's creation, but given he included a self-ridiculing fake interview just a few albums back, being a little cheeky about his own sound is par on course by now.

Besides, the sadsack Christmas tunes are only one facet of A Christmas Album. There's a decent amount of variety across the songs here: the electronically buzzing version of "Little Drummer Boy" sounds like a sneak preview of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" stomps like an angry reindeer, "Blue Christmas" has a lithe country twang to it, "Silver Bells" is a Sufjan Stevens Christmas song before those became a thing. Oberst is also far from the only singer on the album and on some tracks he doesn't say a word, his friends getting the spotlight - unfortunately the album's credits are very vague in terms of direct crediting, but many of the women assisting Oberst with the vocal duties across the album have gentle warm voices, perfect for the ideal cosy Christmas evening. When Oberst and his friends do jump into the black Christmas tree territory, it's pretty good in all honesty. "Silent Night", "The First Noël", "Away in a Manger", etc all work really well with a frown on their face, and as established before, are actually rather entertaining in their melodrama.

It's hard to understand how these could be considered genuinely sad but if you don't find the tongue in the cheek here, there's really little here to savour completely on musical terms alone. It is after all just a brief set of old school evergreens: no matter what you do with them, you're never going to get anything you haven't really heard before. There's no left-field deep cuts or any Bright Eyes originals either, as enticing as an idea of a true Oberst Christmas carol sounds like. That said, the version of "Blue Christmas" is now a mainstay in my Christmas mixtapes because it nails the recipe while having a really solid performance and arrangement behind it: its hint of the blues is present but not without going too far, reaching for that gentle wistfulness that a lot of really good Christmas songs have going on for them. The biggest surprise though, and my actual favourite part of the record, lies right at the end. The stark piano-and-cello version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is honestly beautiful on its own, but it then segues into an orchestrally flaired, comfortingly narrated reading of "The Night Before Christmas". It closes the record in a beautiful and unexpected manner, and it manages to conjure a little magic in as it captures that very special Christmas feeling completely genuinely: it's the Hollywood camera pan-out from Oberst's moody den to the pristinely white winter wonderland outside, snow gently falling to the ground, as the credits roll in.

I get why this can be so divisive, but the whole concept of "early-period Bright Eyes doing a Christmas album" should be a dead giveaway of what's in store, and taking it at face value misses the target entirely. If you're like me and you love both Christmas as well as mopey emo singer/songwriters, this is a delight - it's also a great contrast to so many other indie Christmas albums, which ensures that this gets wheeled out every year (much to the misery of the people I've lived with), especially during the days when all you get is another downpour of rain instead of snow. Plus, it's funny... or I'm just really disjointed myself, either or.

Physically: My copy is a later reissue and so instead of the jewel case you'd expect from an early 00s CD release, the album comes in a neat gatefold package. There's a obi strip -esque banner to go over the top as well which bears the artist and album title, as well as a quote from New York Times: "The saddest, sweetest holiday recording you'll hear all season". Sounds about right.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2005 9 "Gold Mine Gutted", "I Believe in Symmetry", "Easy/Lucky/Free"

1) Time Code; 2) Gold Mine Gutted; 3) Arc of Time (Time Code); 4) Down in a Rabbit Hole; 5) Take It Easy (Love Nothing); 6) Hit the Switch; 7) I Believe in Symmetry; 8) Devil in the Details; 9) Ship in a Bottle; 10) Light Pollution; 11) Theme from Piñata; 12) Easy/Lucky/Free

A dense step askew full of existential dread and twisting arrangements - and incredible songs.

In January 2005 Bright Eyes released two albums on the same day. Both albums deserve independent discussion entirely on their own merits, but comparing the two or referencing one or the other comes naturally because of the obvious sibling connection - and perhaps moreso with Digital Ash in a Digital Urn specifically, because it's generally perceived as the underdog out of the two. It didn't take long after the release of the two albums that audiences began to latch more onto I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and it's understandable: that album is roughly in line where Oberst was seen to be heading towards anyway and thus was an easier, more familiar album to get acquainted with as it matched everyone's expectations. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn on the other hand was a sudden diversion towards the seemingly unexpected, though fans who knew the discography inside and out would have been aware that there were enough curious stylistic one-offs scattered throughout the early Bright Eyes back catalogue to hint that something like this was always going to come out sooner or later (think "Neely O'Hara" or "Lover I Don't Have to Love"). And yet, all the way up to the present day there hasn't been anything else like it in not just the Bright Eyes' body of work but in Oberst's whole career. While it continues to be overshadowed by its brother, the distinctiveness of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn makes it one of the most fascinating records Oberst has ever released.

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is usually summarised as Bright Eyes' electronic album, and I can get where people come from with it, but it's not quite the full story. While there are a lot of synthesized elements - primarily by way of sound filters, samples and random scatterings of digital noise and distortion - and the traditional long introductionary segment this time takes the form of the chopped-up and heavily electronic near-instrumental "Time Code" (a musical passage that a friend of mine said made him feel uncomfortable on the first impression, in a purely positive manner), the songs are still primarily arranged for live instruments and as neat as a Bright Eyes indietronica album could sound like, this isn't it. The difference to the norm is in what those instruments are doing. Bright Eyes' sound so far had been built on a bed of acoustic guitars and Mogis' growing presence in the electric side of things, but both of those are now in a more textural background role, contributing to the overall soundscape rather than leading it. The melodic leads are now instead played on keyboards or strings, laid out on top of oft-layered percussion elements (the line-up for the live tour for the album featured two drummers for this alone), and the instruments in general drop in and out of the arrangements as if someone was flipping toggle switches. The songs themselves aren't too far removed from what you'd expect from Bright Eyes by this point, but the arrangements are deeply layered and tinkered with to such a extent that it makes the sound world of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn incredibly dense and sometimes chaotic. A lot of it builds on the more layered approach and ways to bind the songs together that Lifted introduced but it's overclocked to such a degree that it becomes a widely more prominent part of the album. The neurotic percussion can be bewildering, choices like turning a baby's cry into a pseudo-guitar solo can be disorienting and Oberst sometimes sounds like his voice could get lost in all the erratic sounds around him; but that stands starkly in contrast to when the walls break down and the album switches to a clearer mindset. Rarely has the appearance of a string section sounded so hair-raising as it does at the end of "I Believe in Symmetry" as they conclude the song's ever-transforming tones with one grand finale send-off, and a direct rocker like "Light Pollution" sounds downright revelatory as its straightforward approach follows a near-full album of falling down the rabbit hole.

Another hallmark of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is how the dense journey depicted by the music is accompanied by the heavier lyrics and Oberst's sullen delivery. Bright Eyes aren't a happy band by all means but quite often there's a kind of playfulness or natural chemistry that takes the edge off Oberst's narrative twists and hidden-in-plain-sight twisting of lyrical knives - and all that's gone in Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Oberst's lyrics throughout the album contemplate mortality and the endless void of infinity with an almost doom-mongering reverence, the tales of connections between people are bleak and almost always end in tragedy (the cutesy mood-lifter "Theme from Piñata" being the sole, sharply warm and happy exception) and sometimes the lyrics are like a list of people Oberst has lost over the years through death or emotional dissolution. This is possibly the darkest Bright Eyes album, if only because the shades that have always been there are now in plain sight and little light is let in; and in a way that is enhanced by Oberst himself sounding like he's half-stuck in stupour, keeping his voice in the lower registers and restraining from his trademark yelps and bursts for most of the album's duration. The whole aural experience is like a nervous lucid dream that only causes more unease with each step you take.

It's marvellous, though. The thick atmosphere covering Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is perhaps its biggest draw, the reason why it remains as such an enigmatic yet hypnotic listening experience. Yet despite its downbeat ambience the record never stays still: because the whole album is one big stylistic curveball, Oberst takes the opportunity to experiment beyond the confinements of his usual palette and every song at first feels like another surprise twist. There's once-in-a-career freakouts like the perversely fun stuttering percussion groove of "Arc of Time" that preaches about the end of everything on top of a light-hearted singalong groove and the already mentioned "Ship in a Bottle" that breaks down the entire song with its fever dream instrumental interlude before building it back up again, and the downtempo melancholy ruminations of "Devil in the Details" and "Down in a Rabbit Hole" are adorned in hefty ambient textures and load-bearing drum loops that give them an ominously tense aura. Like already mentioned the songs keep transforming across their lengths and frequently push Oberst in the background altogether as the arrangements wash over the songs like a tidal wave and lengthy instrumental sections take the songs into musically grander and emotionally heftier heights ("Hit the Switch", "I Believe in Symmetry", "Down in a Rabbit Hole", "Easy/Lucky/Free"...). For all its calm and cold demeanour Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is a free playing ground for Oberst where any old rulesets have been thrown out, and it's thrilling. It's not all surface level trickery above depth either, with Oberst's writing pen being as sharp as it was on Lifted and each song is a distinctly exciting little epic - the slightest of the litter is "Theme from Piñata" and that's lightweight on purpose (trust me, it makes sense in the context and flow).

Still, it's worth singling out a select few tracks, and in particular "Easy/Lucky/Free". I've no idea what my one single favourite Bright Eyes song would be, they're not the kind of act where there's been one moment so pivotal that I could easily place it on its own pedestal if someone were to ask me - but "Easy/Lucky/Free" has always been one of the great contenders. It arrives at the end of the album to bring it back to focus after the freewheeling guitars of the ecstatic "Light Pollution" (one of Oberst's best honest rockers) and the simple blissed-out warmth of "Theme from Piñata" have began to crack the record's veneer, by returning to its central lyrical themes ("it's all I'm doing now / listening to patters in the sound / of an endless static sea" feels like it in some ways encapsules the record) and production concepts, but it's not a bombastic final run to end the album with. Instead it's a world-weary sigh, an earnestly emotional one last look at the existential threads that Oberst is staring at throughout the album, and it embraces the finality with an accepting nod. It's a quietly devastating song that doesn't let the album's sonic tricks interrupt its sublime vocal melodies - not until the end, of course, when the record does its one last switch-up and slowly breaks the song into pieces like a tape that unwinds as it plays, letting the record drift into oblivion with one last stutter. It's a powerful song and almost a counterpart to "Gold Mine Gutted", which serves as the album's first "true" song after the intro and which shares many of its themes with "Easy/Lucky/Free", only from a more directly personal perspective and set within a yearning could-be-anthem where the drum patterns escalate with each pass of the verse until they overwhelm the song altogether - together, the kind-of bookends represent the album at its best. "I Believe in Symmetry" smack-dab in the middle practically demands to be highlighted as well, as it sounds about as classic Bright Eyes as this album gets until the sudden record scratch twist halfway through, where the at-first rollicking stomper suddenly retreats into an impassioned gut-punch rant peppered with call-and-answer backing vocals and eventually, as mentioned before, drowns in its majestic string arrangement in what is one of the best in the album's many awe-inspiring moments.

It's a striking listening experience and an altogether fantastic album, and it's also a courageous one, playing against an established type - which even in 2005, when this was sort of thing was becoming commonplace, is always a gamble. That gamble pays off with a jackpot here. Oberst would never again fully immerse himself in the soundworld that this album represents, but the experiments and ideas spitballed here are clearly echoed across all the future Bright Eyes albums, introducing so many new shades to what would become the "Bright Eyes" sound that this one-off is sneakily one of the most internally influential albums of his career. But it's the way that Digital Ash in a Digital Urn pulls it to such extremes that makes it so outstanding: it's a singular album not only because of the obvious stylistic reasons, but because it's so dedicated to its ideas that no other Bright Eyes album acts so much like a gateway to its own realm. One more comparison for the road (needlessly pitting two good albums against one another), but given the status of this as the eternal underdog I'm compelled to say that out of the two 2005 releases this has always struck me as the more exciting one out of the two, and the one that looks and feels like the true milestone record of its year in the back catalogue.

Physically: So the cover above isn't actually even the cover on my release: the flower version seems to have become the more widespread visual representation these days whereas the cover art in my copy depicts a man cleaning a toilet. The flower is the better cover (funeral flowers to match the title), but it's not like it really matters because in the real world the artwork is barely detectable, printed in an ever-so-lighter shade of black compared to the background - and the jewel case is also tinted black, so the overall visuals are very bleak and almost mono-coloured.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2005 7 "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)", "Lua", "Road to Joy"

1) At the Bottom of Everything; 2) We Are Nowhere and It's Now; 3) Old Soul Song (For the New World Order); 4) Lua; 5) Train Under Water; 6) First Day of My Life; 7) Another Travelin' Song; 8) Landlocked Blues; 9) Poison Oak; 10) Road to Joy

A simpler, more straightforward singer/songwriter's affair with a country twang - but I can't help but want more than that?

Out of the two albums that Bright Eyes released on the same day in January 2005, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is the one you could have expected. Thanks to his increased visibility since Lifted, Oberst had quickly started to gain reputation as a modern musical poet and the new generation's answer to the great singer/songwriters of yore, and where Digital Ash in a Digital Urn was an unprecedented curveball, I'm Wide Awake finds Oberst leaning up to his characterisation so strongly that you could almost start drafting a conspiracy theory that it was written in-character. The sound is carried by Oberst's acoustic guitar and for around half the album's length it's often the only instrument you hear with some minimal accompaniments, and the nods towards country and americana that make up a distinguishable part of the album's DNA feel like the logical next step for an American folk artist; the lyrics too are less insular, with the tales of romantic failures being easier to interpret and a political undercurrent running through the record reflecting the post-9/11, post-Iraq War landscape like a period piece. Overall, it's a far more approachable album than its cryptic sibling - the great American artist releasing a deeply American heart-on-sleeve statement, playing to his established strengths.

It is important to note that the previous sentence isn't just a polite niceness for the sake of it - the building elements at the core of Bright Eyes that started the whole project were Oberst and his guitar, and that combination has only gotten better as Oberst has developed as a musician. In that way I'm Wide Awake is a back to basics affair, even if it comes with his expanded posse of unofficial band members (and Mogis and Walcott, the latter who makes his debut Bright Eyes credit on this album) and the walls of sound they can bring with them. "Lua" is the only song which features solely Oberst with zero accompaniment, but many others either only have a basic intimate backdrop behind him ("At the Bottom of Everything", "The First Day of My Life") or the rest of the band only appears for a brief dramatic moment ("Landlocked Blues", "Poison Oak"); the more fleshed-out arrangements across the other songs never stray too far away either from the sound of a pack of friends playing together in a small room. To (inevitably) compare it against its fellow release, where Digital Ash was cold and stoic in appearance and buried in intricately labyrinthine arrangements, I'm Wide Awake is warm, personal and as straightforward as you can get, and about as direct as Oberst has been since the very early bedroom recording days even if the production values have stepped up in the years since. Oberst is a magnetic performer and the whole album rests almost entirely on him, and it's a real parade for his charisma and resonance.

I guess somewhere within there is buried the reason why I don't find I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning as exciting as I rationally perhaps should - it is, and I'm trying to say this in the least offensive way possible, a rather one-dimensional album, in a manner that leaves one wanting. It's clear and blunt about what it is, i.e. a set of straightforward Bright Eyes songs and nothing more and nothing less than that. There's not much if any in the way of greater concepts or running themes (the traditional intro is simply Oberst giving the first song an unrelated narrative backdrop), nor is there a sense of ambition or an attempt to explore new territories in the sound and arrangements - it's just a set of the kinds of songs you might associate with Bright Eyes. There's no crime in not trying to reinvent the wheel and the songs are good songs for the most part (the country shuffling "Another Travelin' Song" has always left me a little cold and time has done nothing about it, and "Train Under Water" is a reheated version of the early album's glories), and some of those songs are great: the aching "We Are Nowhere and It's Now" (one of the handful of songs to feature backing vocals from Emmylou Harris who makes for such a perfect dueting partner with Oberst) and the slowly building epic "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order) start the album off so stylishly that it's almost unfair for the rest of the record, "Lua" is magically captivating in its skeletal starkness that it makes a simple guitar backing sound like a power move, and "Road to Joy" (yes, a Beethoven riff) is a classic moment of Oberst building up a wall only to gloriously crash it all down in a flurry of rapturous rock and roll noise. At the same time, I'm Wide Awake does little to establish its own character and what traits it has it shares with passages on other Bright Eyes releases, where they usually come across more strikingly. As much as it's a selection of good songs, it's from an act who typically does that anyway and then adds something extra on top of it.

Still, even at his least inventive Oberst ca. mid-2000s is still reliably solid as anything and I'm Wide Awake can be relied upon to tick all the right boxes. Oberst is back to his more elaborately emotional self after the (deliberately) more calm and emotionless delivery across Digital Ash, his lyrics are worth pouring over the liner notes for whether they're dissecting an intricate situation or he's just happy for once in his life, and you can find hair-raisingly great moments just as easily outside the highlight tracks (the wistfully triumphant trumpet on "Landlocked Blues", the final crescendo of "Poison Oak" where the band joins in after the long wait). The tinge of personal warmth that runs across the album makes particular moments leap out in pleasantly unexpected ways, like "First Day of My Life" which veers dangerously close to advert music but rescues itself by just sounding so unreservedly optimistic that its little ode to just being happy for once can strike a real strong chord if caught in the right moment. It is, in its own terms, a fine album, and I do sometimes wonder what exactly my reaction would be if it wasn't so tightly related to Digital Ash in a Digital Urn because of the circumstances around its release, because Digital Ash goes that extra mile in all the ways that I'm Wide Awake intentionally avoids and the former can't help but overshadow the latter in context. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning opts to represent a more undecorated version of Bright Eyes and while that serves a purpose and is refreshing in its own way, there's a nagging little yearning in my head wanting for it to always go somewhere more.

Physically: Clear jewel case, with a standard affair lyrics booklet. Once again, intentionally less elaborate in everything than Digital Ash.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2005 6 "We Are Nowhere and It's Now", "Southern State"

1) At the Bottom of Everything; 2) We Are Nowhere and It's Now; 3) Old Soul Song (For the New World Order); 4) Make War (Short); 5) Make War; 6) A Scale, a Mirror and Those Indifferent Clocks; 7) Landlocked Blues; 8) Method Acting; 9) Train Under Water; 10) When the President Talks to God; 11) Road to Joy; 12) Mushaboom; 13) True Blue; 14) Southern State; 15) The Biggest Lie

I'm Wide Awake, the tour version - and not much more than that.

Following the dual release of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, Bright Eyes spent the rest of 2005 on the road on two different tours, one for each album. Both tours were heavily built around the specific album they were based around, with different back catalogue cuts accompanying the new songs, different band setups and even personnel, almost on the basis that they were done by entirely different bands. The Digital Ash tour featured a sizeable backing crew that could bring the album's layered arrangements to life (including two drummers), transforming the digitally twisted songs into heady and heavy live performances; meanwhile, the I'm Wide Awake tour was a livelier affair featuring a more straightforward band setup and a lackadaisical attitude. If you want to observe the night and day difference yourself, for the Digital Ash perspective you can find a pro-shot 2005 live performance from the Paradiso in Amsterdam quite easily on Youtube and while it's also 2005 in audio/video quality, the immense atmosphere of the performance is clear and obvious. And for the I'm Wide Awake tour, well, guess which one of the two got the official live album treatment?

I'm going to be a little biased against Motion Sickness (which, funnily enough, doesn't feature "Motion Sickness") from the outset simply because of my preference between the two albums and the nagging voice in my head whinging about how it would've been nice to have had the other tour immortalised like this, but from an "objective" perspective there's not much here to complain about. Oberst can be hit or miss live but he's in solid form here throughout and happily bantering around (that's effectively what the "short version" of "Make War" is), the band sound good and the setlist is drawn mostly from I'm Wide Awake - a good album - and earlier cuts like "Method Acting" and "A Scale, a Mirror..." slot along well. "When the President Talks to God", the non-album anti-George W. Bush song that is little more than a trivia point in Oberst's discography, sounds far better here in a live setting than originally, because a simple protest song like this simply comes to life when you have an audience whooping and hollering along to the sentiment. The songs are performed faithfully to the originals and given the originals were arranged for a small live band in the first place, it means theres no surprises or alternative arrangements that would set these versions apart from the recorded takes beyond the usual live variance. It's a very straighforward depiction of Bright Eyes on the road on one of their most straightforward tours (since their rise to relative prominence anyway), and you get what you ask for there.

The recordings on this disc have been picked up from all over the tour, but the first eleven songs are structured like the main body of the setlist (ending with the tour's de facto set closer "Road to Joy"), and that leaves the last four songs as an encore of sorts intentionally separated from the rest. This is the most interesting part of Motion Sickness, gathered from various special sessions during the tour with a more intimate recording setting. The covers of Feist's "Mushaboom" (Oberst's big tour-time music discovery, according to the liner notes) and Elliott Smith's "The Biggest Lie" slot comfortably within the Bright Eyes repertoire, the former bouncing along jauntily if a little haphazardly as a group of musicians are covering something they've recently fallen in love with on a whim, while the latter surrounds Oberst with only understated guitar accompaniments and it has a delicate but tender beauty to it. The deep cut "True Blue" was originally just Oberst with a drum machine and other assorted bedroom studio accompaniments, and now comes to a different kind of life with a full band, retaining the adorable charm of the original version but just a little more "grown up", if you will. The even deeper cut "Southern State" gets the reverse treatment by whittling things down to just guitar, keyboard and voice, but the version is here is in fact stronger than the original, and you could say that the best thing about Motion Sickness is that it gives more spotlight to this otherwise completely forgotten but heartfelt and lovely song.

Actually, I tell a slight lie - the best thing about Motion Sickness are probably the liner notes, featuring a long and exhaustive tour diary by drummer Jason Boesel describing in great detail the joys, the miseries, the anecdotes and the inside jokes of a group of people bonding over a long road across the entire globe. It brings a ton of colour and context into the recordings you hear, offers a quite frankly brutally honest of what it feels like for a musical act in ascebt to take on a big tour like this when they're still really not used to it. It's a really good read, like a pint-sized music biography, and miles beyond the bare-bones liner notes you usually find with live albums. As for the actual music side of the album, well... what you get out of Motion Sickness mainly boils down to what you, the listener, want from a live album. If simply hearing a bunch of good songs played by a band in a fine live form is enough to entertain, then Motion Sickness is a guaranteed success and even beyond that, a fan of the group is bound to find this pleasant to listen to by default. But if you want something more than that, something that would make you want to reach out for the live set specifically over the studio versions, something that stands as a body of work in its own right - that's not something Motion Sickness really offers. I fall firmly in the latter camp and so whilst Motion Sickness is an enjoyable listen by default because of all the obvious points already made, it never absorbs you into its audience. The relatively low rating doesn't therefore reflect the quality of the recordings as such but rather, if you will, more about the lack of a 'point' to ever go back to it.

Physically: Clear jewel case, with the aforementioned liner notes.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2006 8 "I Will Be Grateful for This Day", "Drunk Kid Catholic", "Bad Blood"

1) Mirrors and Fevers; 2) I Will Be Grateful for This Day; 3) Trees Get Wheeled Away; 4) Drunk Kid Catholic; 5) Spent on Rainy Days; 6) The Vanishing Act; 7) Soon You Will Be Leaving Your Man; 8) Blue Angels Air Show; 9) Weather Reports; 10) Seashell Tale; 11) Bad Blood; 12) Amy in the White Coat; 13) Devil Town; 14) I've Been Eating (For You); 15) Happy Birthday to Me (Feb. 15); 16) Motion Sickness

A selection of non-album tracks almost as tight as an album, and a throwback to the less polished production aesthetics to go with it.

Being an independent label act from the USA, Bright Eyes weren't exactly a singles act during their initial years and so a b-side compilation doesn't seem like a particularly relevant format for them. There is however a plethora of material outside the albums waiting to be discovered by the obsessed fans, it's just all hidden in random various artists compilations, tribute albums, regional special releases, obscure EPs and scattershot split releases. Noise Floor arrives at a time when Bright Eyes' profile was at their critical and commercial peak and inhabits a place you'd normally expect to have found a more traditional "best of" style compilation, but something like this as a career summary is a lot more vital for the cause, bringing out all these disparate pieces into the light where they can actually be heard. Now, from a completionist perspective th is by no means comprehensive: some of the EPs have been skipped outright, a few obscurities have been left in the depths of Discogs catalogues for the hardcore archeologists to discover, and despite the full title there isn't actually anything from 2005 here even though that was the one year when Bright Eyes released a number of traditional singles backed by actual b-sides. Instead, this sixteen-song collection has been specifically curated and presented a little like an album in its own right, which despite its multitude of sources spanning several years sounds like it comes together as one thought-out piece. It even comes with the classic Bright Eyes-style overextended introduction courtesy of the half-field recording, half-a cappella "Mirrors & Fevers", just to make it feel more like something greater than the sum of its parts (even Oberst comments on the liner notes that he was relieved when he remembered this exists, so the album can get the opener it ought to have).

The nature of Bright Eyes as a "b-sides" act means that despite the time span, the majority of the songs here come from a similar place. Most of these songs were fresh at the time of recording, caught on tape for a very specific purpose during random intervals in the wider Bright Eyes story. The natural result of their ad hoc character is the majority of them bear a more intimate sound, featuring primarily Oberst in the front and centre with a limited selection of collaborators at any given time and recorded outside fancy studios. There's only two songs with relatively higher production values and more detailed full-band arrangements, and both are brought out pretty early into the album in a way that feels like both a gentle ease into the record as well as getting songs of such separate character out of the way quickly: "Trees Get Wheeled Away" is an earnest folk rock cut that Oberst admits in the liner notes would have been perfect for I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning if it hadn't been brought to life two years earlier (and he's right), and "Drunk Kid Catholic" was specifically recorded as a stab at a UK radio single, though the idea that this chorus-less, delightfully disjointed and gradually unravelling sing-along made for a natural airplay hit is (delightfully) mad. Once those tracks are over and done with the rest of Noise Floor moves towards scruffier recording aesthetics, pared down arrangements and warts-and-all approaches. "Drunk Kid Catholic" in particular has really strong legs that is an early indication that the compilation contains some great hidden surprises worth presenting to a wider public, but their more pristine nature is at the same time a little at odds when the rest of the album unfolds and becomes a lot more cosy and personal in its approach.

The other key thing of note is that very few of the songs on Noise Floor are strictly speaking outtakes: they're not discards left behind because stronger songs occupied their place on the albums, but rather they were put together for a purpose to represent Bright Eyes' name in random places. That means Oberst's songwriting standard remains consistently high throughout and it's clear to see why each of these songs were picked for this compilation - because any of these could have been strong enough to be on some album or another. The slightest the album gets (besides the intro) are its two covers, in M. Ward's "Seashell Tale" and Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town": pleasant, but far outweighed by all the original content on the album. A good half of the songs are mainly just Oberst and his guitar with a variety of light accompaniments and levels of lo-fi, but each one is distinct and melodically strong, from the manic "The Vanishing Act" and the textural "Weather Reports" (previously unreleased, with the aforementioned M. Ward and Oberst layering disparate sounds on top of the core track), to the wistfully gentle and bittersweetly poignant rainy day beauty of "Soon You Will Be Leaving Your Man" and "Motion Sickness"; a re-recording of "Happy Birthday to Me (Feb. 15th)" from A Collection of Songs... also appears in a slightly more spruced up look but it retains its bedroom homeliness, just more confidently. There's always something that jumps out from each song, and in that respect Noise Floor acts like your typical Bright Eyes album. That's (perhaps obviously) even moreso the case with the songs that break away from the pack, and that's also where most of the real essential takeaways lie in. "I Will Be Grateful to This Day" foreshadows the synthetic distortion of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn with its fully programmed backing and with little tweaks could have easily been a highlight on that album as well, "Blue Angels Air Show" comes across like a rough demo but its choruses are downright anthemic (no wonder this was one of the songs they re-recorded for the 2023 reissue) and in this case the rough edges and homespun production aesthetic add to its charms, and the detached and echoing "Bad Blood" is an arrestingly strong composition that subtly shifts across its length to twist those emotional knives in even further as it develops. For like a good 70%-80% of the album Oberst never sounds like he's just throwing something out to get an assignment over and done with and with some tweaks and better timing could have been canonised in records (or the bigger-profile EPs, half of which feature lesser material than the songs here). Even the rest of the selection is great to discover: "Spent on Rainy Days" is a sneering little gremlin that's indie folk in form but pure snotty punk in spirit, and its messiness - all-over-the-place drums and yelping all around - is exactly the kind of delight you would never see fit to hear on an album but it's a real treat to learn it exists.

The more meta-level intrigue with rarities collections comes from the insight of finding out what's in the gaps between the albums, colouring in the empty connecting spaces to detect hidden signs of big milestones while they were still ideas. Apart from "I Will Be Grateful for This Day" and "Trees Get Wheeled Away", Noise Floor doesn't offer much in the way of individual moments like that - as a whole however, it's like the diagram center between Oberst's early lo-fi confessionals and the more elaborate songwriting of the landmark albums of the early-mid 2000s. In fact if you come into Noise Floor after those albums, the compilation is like a throwback reminder to the tone of where Bright Eyes began but with bigger ideas and intricate ear for arrangement and melody that are in line with the albums preceding this one. Noise Floor never fully shakes off the simple fact that it's a compilation but as a listening experience it's just as solid and tight as its album counterparts, which is something that even many of the other curated b-sides selections from other artists out there can't always say to be the case.

Physically: Jewel case with a plastic o-card over it, which contains the title on the front and tracklist on the bottom (the CD art is just that, the art). The liner notes feature Oberst's brief comments on each song as well all the lyrics (apart from the covers).


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2007 10 "Four Winds", "If the Brakeman Turns My Way", "No One Would Riot for Less"

1) Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed); 2) Four Winds; 3) If the Brakeman Turns My Way; 4) Hot Knives; 5) Make a Plan to Love Me; 6) Soul Singer in a Session Band; 7) Classic Cars; 8) Middleman; 9) Cleanse Song; 10) No One Would Riot for Less; 11) Coat Check Dream Song; 12) I Must Belong Somewhere; 13) Lime Tree

Richly decorated, lushly arranged set of soulful folk anthems. And Oberst's best songwriting goes hand in hand with all that.

The first ever proper job I had, around 2007-2008, was based in a different city to where I lived and so in order to get to work in time, I had to wake up ridiculously early each morning to catch a crack-of-dawn train. Those trips meant I had a lot of time listen to music on my way to and back, and number of albums I listened to during that period now have memories of those commutes attached to them. I typically caught up on lost sleep during the morning train ride and finished my nap a few stops away from the destination usually around the same time that the sun was beginning to rise properly, and the way Cassadaga opens was perfect for that drowsy moment of both myself and the world waking up: with the way its long and otherworldly spoken word passage about spiritualism and the literal Cassadaga (a community area in Florida dubbed as the psychic capital of the world), with an orchestra unravelling around it, slid into the gently dreamy body of the song itself as the orchestra calms down and Oberst's soft vocals enter. By the time the album had kicked off onto a livelier gear I would have as well as I'd be making my way through the still-waking city to the office. So this is just to set the scene on where we - I - have to start with when assessing Cassadaga and its strengths: there are personal aspects tied to it, which in turn have lead the way forward deeper into the rest of the album.

The densely arranged "Clairaudients", with not just orchestras but organs, various types and tones of backing vocals, layered guitars etc, paves way for the whole of Cassadaga. By 2007 indie rock had grown bigger: in a post-Arcade Fire, post-Polyphonic Spree scene a more maximalist strain of confessional anthems had began to gain presence and even prominence, and it was suddenly cool to go widescreen rather than sticking to the basement sound being the only credible way forward. Cassadaga fits neatly into that environment, as Bright Eyes' answer to the trend - though they are going about it their own way rather than simply following the bluster of others. The most obvious mark of the expanded palette are of course those strings, laid across most of the album and frequently establishing dominance over other instruments which often quiet down to give the orchestral section more space. They are, however, not quite the kind of cinematic bombast that you'd usually find on a rock album (though Cassadaga only fits that category very loosely), where the strings could easily just be replaced by another keyboard preset sound. Instead they live and breathe in time with the songs, going on journeys around the other instruments and forming an ever-changing voice of its own highlighting and underlining the emotive points of the songs as clearly as the lyrics do; there's something very "classic" about how they are used here, harkening back to the string-laden productions of the sixties and seventies, in particular, lending Cassadaga almost faux-vintage spirit even if not form. But that's only scratching the surface of Cassadaga's rich tapestry, where the songs feature layers of deftly produced and immacutely arranged ideas, all of which contribute towards the wider musical narrative. The also-already mentioned backing vocals are another key element of the album, with a number of voices (per the credits there's fourteen different people outside the core trio who contribute vocals across the board) in various tones contributing to the album both behind and also in conjunction with Oberst's lead, the oft-wordless harmonies acting like another form of a swooning orchestra. The woodwinds and horns, the organs and the slide guitars, the minute blink-and-miss accentuations, they all leave a mark on Cassadaga and lend it their own character. They're also all distinctly audible and gorgeously produced, the album brimming with the kind of warmth that gives you no other option but to - indeed - describe a piece of music as "warm". Mogis has played an integral role in how Bright Eyes have adapted to new sounds over the years and Cassadaga is by and far his best production job, and that's no mean feat.

Underneath those grandiose arrangements, Oberst taps right back into the country/americana-flavoured folk rock sound that he had established as his go-to voice in the mid-00s: scrape away the added decour and this isn't a million miles away from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, but it's far enough that you can tell there's been a change. In my review for I'm Wide Awake... I mentioned that to my ears the album felt like Oberst stylistically answering to what people expected of him, and in contrast here it feels like he's owning that sound under his own name and that those orchestrations are a part of it. Instead of a politically-charged roots-tinged folk rock songwriter, here he's more of a classic soul-influenced country storyteller, just recontextualised in an indie rock setting. The lyrics are back in the Lifted-style longer narratives and elaborate detail (and the song lengths match it), moving between character studies, intimately personal contemplations and the overall framing theme of spirituality and religion that runs constantly in the background, so much that if you called this a partial concept album I wouldn't necessarily push back all that much. You can also catch that feeling in how there is a clear aura of presenting a particular vision across the album, of Oberst very deliberately setting out to create a perfectionistically crafted statement instead of just a set of songs carved out from the same cloth. Now that's just my gut feeling, but there is something of a truth hiding in that too. After a particularly rough period around late 2005/early 2006 where Oberst found himself fighting his darker demons through drugs and frequently lashing out in public under their influence, he underwent through a period of cleansing, reconnecting and personal travel; including to Cassadaga itself, with one of its inhabitants providing that hypnotic introduction to the album. Cassadaga isn't strictly about any of that, but many of its subtler themes touch upon finding focus and clarity again, and I can't help but feel that feeds into the hyper-focused way the album works.

I've spent a lot of time talking about how the album sounds but it's because that aspect is so hand-in-hand with the songs that it's impossible to separate the two. In my books Cassadaga features Oberst's finest songwriting, a genuine peak for him in terms of not just how strong the melodies and lyrics are but also how he structures and builds the dramatic arcs within the tracks, and that is so tied to the wider ideas around how these songs have been approached in their arrangements. You could reduce these songs to their base components and they'd still be great, but they are brilliant precisely because of how deeply woven the presentation is into them. That's the difference between Cassadaga and so many other albums from this period that simply expand the size of the credits list to amplify the sound and leave it there: the richness supports the songwriting and the other way around. "Lime Tree" is about as effective as an example as you could find because in its core it's just Oberst singing hushedly over a very minimal guitar accompaniment, an even more intimate version of the countless other solo acoustic spots he has had across Bright Eyes' catalogue: but it's the way the strings enter and disappear throughout to both bring and lift tension, and how the angelic backing vocals appear like spatters of comforting light breaking through the quiet darkness and deep sadness that surrounds the song like a chamber. Remove them and it would be a lesser song because it was so clearly devised with this arrangement in mind. Same goes for the rest of the album, as Oberst explores this new way of writing and composing songs and it results in brilliant passages of music.

If you were to dive deeper into the songs themselves, they follow a rough trend of splitting the album into vaguely defined three sections. The start of the album - after the powerfully captivating overture of "Clairaudients" which is a certain challenger for the best opener in the Bright Eyes catalogue - features all the singles, i.e. the big and immediate hooks to set the scene and to pull the listener in. "Four Winds" sometimes feels like Oberst's greatest singular statement: a rousing and rambling anthem fuelled by preacher-like zeal and brimstone passion, mixing religion, politics and personal soul-searching into a honest-to-god stomper that grows and grows until it can barely contain itself, each line worthy of awe, each reading of them full of heart and with a fantastic musical backing (featuring a singular fiddle with the charisma of a full orchestra) bringing them forward. "Hot Knives" takes many of the same starting elements but goes full cinematic on them, revelling in widescreen dynamics as the song brightly explodes like fireworks in a bundle of storming drums and sweeping strings. In-between these two towering calls-to-arms is the delicate "If the Brakeman Turns My Way", a song about panic attacks and the ever-fleeting and changing nature of life and mortality, but the way it's performed and how Oberst writes about it gives it the comforting nature of a friend who helps you get back on your feet after life has crashed you down. From its gentle opening it slowly unfolds into a resonantly swooning torchlight song, and the swap between lead and backing vocals in one of its last choruses is one of those thoughtfully considered details that highlights the difference between how multiple voices in Bright Eyes songs were arranged before and on Cassadaga.

After it's blown down the doors Cassadaga tones things down for its more calm and collected middle section. It's not as flashy as the beginning or the end of the album as the arrangements hone in closer to the core group of musicians here, with the exception of the vintage Hollywood strings that lace through the distinctly vintage-sounding and wistfully romantic "Make a Plan to Love Me". "Classic Cars" and "Soul Singer in a Session Band" are the link between Cassadaga and the releases prior; with its soaring chorus the DNA of "Classic Cars" is clearly from the same family as the folk rock centrepieces on I'm Wide Awake... and adjacent releases, while the more irreverent and good-natured "Soul Singer in a Session Band" has the same off-the-cuff looseness that some of the non-album tracks and live performance from around that same period showcased. "Middle Man" on the other hand is just as thickly layered and atmospheric as the rest of the album but in a more introspective, almost loop-like manner where the song sounds like it's returning from the center of a dream, and though in its tone and writing it's cut from the same cloth as the songs immediately prior, its disjointed and almost foreboding feeling is entirely its own and makes it an outlier on the record. It's not a dark song but it's a curveball in tone on what is otherwise a surprisingly inviting and borderline positive album, which even in its saddest moments extends a hand to comfort. So, tonally the middle section is all over the place and it's where the album's cohesion trips up ever so slightly, but the songs are superb enough to overcome it. "Classic Cars" in particular has grown so much in my eyes, from my early-days dismissal of it as ill-fittingly "basic" into one of the album's secret aces in its sleeve - the way the second chorus grows and ramps up with the backing vocals in tow is nothing short of gripping, and it proudly forms the heart of the record.

In its last third the album returns to the rich aesthetics with a vengeance and ramps them up even beyond what came before, introducing different elements and ideas while accelerating towards the grand finale. The busy aural textures of "Cleanse Song" make it into the spring-fresh palate cleanser that it aims to be as the album stands still in harmony for a while to gather its strengths before "No One Would Riot for Less" hits. "No One Would Riot for Less" is Cassadaga's emotional centrepiece and it brings Oberst back to face the inevitable apocalyptic doom like so many times before, but this time its string-and-harmony guided crescendo makes it so heartbreakingly powerful and poignant in a manner so intense that it sends chills in a way no other Bright Eyes song has before. The bewildering "Coat Check Dream Song" sounds like it started out as a sonic experiment before it became a song, as it caleidoscopically swivels between breathlessly connected vocal lines and overwhelmingly dense layers of percussion and keyboards, and caps it all off with a passage sung in Arabic (excellently foreshadowed at the end of "Clairaudients" in a real chef's kiss moment of album cohesion, by the way) which gets extended and elaborated on like a guitar solo in a jam session as the rest of the band loops in a groove around it. It's hypnotic, psychedelic and all the more magnificent for it: the song is a stranger in a foreign land but one of the most unique and compelling twists Oberst has pulled. "I Must Belong Somewhere" is the grand marathon run towards the end in sight, once again locking the band into a groove that gets more muscular and impassioned with each go-around; Oberst basically just lists things from whimpering dogs and novellists to cauliflower in a casserole (there is a central point to it but it's still an atypically informally styled lyric) and he sounds like a charismatic leader rallying the troops as he does so, with the song acting as the march through the streets. The grand crescendo is the most joyous and liberated he has ever sounded, it's downright empowering. "Lime Tree" is the quiet epilogue, a haunting whisper to tide the album over, both majestic and minimal at the same time - the opposite of everything that came before in mood and so makes for a powerfully disarming final word the effects of which long after the album has finished. It pulls the listener back to earth with an unexpected force, one more sweep of the rug below the feet, and that contrast is why it hits like a brick and makes for such a stunner of an ending.

And... well, you've seen the score by now and the armada of superlatives throughout the above paragraphs ("most", "best", "greatest", spread out so liberally I feel shy about it) goes hand in hand with it. Cassadaga is not just my favourite Bright Eyes album but it's also my Bright Eyes album: the one I've bonded closest with over the years and formed a personal relationship with it above any other album of theirs. Those early morning commutes were the start of it, as despite the hours wasted travelling I genuinely enjoyed that year and I still pleasantly and vividly remember very specific stretches of roads or seats in the train cabin where certain songs from this album played during particular times of the year: "Clairaudients" in the tucked-away corner seat where I gently prepared for the day, "I Must Belong Somewhere" soundtracking the walk by the riverside road near the office during a bright summer morning. Those memories matter, but I also listened to a lot of albums that year in a similar manner and they've not been given a perfect score, so the final reason behind the pedestal Cassadaga is placed on isn't just in that nostalgia. Rather, it hits that sweet Venn diagram centre spot across a number of elements that have a special pull for me when it comes to albums. Associations with particular chapters of my life is one of them certainly, but beautifully crafted soundscapes and rich production that allows the details to flourish is another; a fascinating, insightful and compelling lyrics sheet with a strong narrative voice is another. Great songs is an obvious one that shouldn't even need mentioning. Cassadaga hits a lot of sweet spots that tick very specific boxes for me, and they're present on an album where an already proven-to-be-brilliant songwriter is operating in his utmost peak strength. If you're not me and you don't have my exact memories (and you have my condolences for that), that dimension of Cassadaga is still tangible - it's a wonderfully written and composed album full of stand-out musical moments. The ultimate proof of its power is what I already touched upon with "Lime Tree": once the album has finished its presence continues to hang around in my mind, colouring my mood and inhabiting my thoughts like I'm still caught within its world. That's the telltale sign of a special album.

Physically: First of all, it's a 2007 release so you guessed it - it's a super jewel case, which is both exotic, exciting and yet understandably awkward at the same time. The shooting star emblem is a sticker on the jewel case itself, the front of the booklet (which just has the lyrics and credits, no pictures or photos) is completely covered in that gray "static". However, inside the case you also find a "spectral decoder", essentially a descrambler for those classic hidden image 3D pictures - and the cover is one. Place the decoder on the static and the full cover reveals itself, with a larger version of the emblem with a vast amount of cryptic text and code around it. It's very cool.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2011 9 "Jejune Stars", "A Machine Spiritual (The People's Key)", "One for You, One for Me"

1) Firewall; 2) Shell Games; 3) Jejune Stars; 4) Approximate Sunlight; 5) Haile Selassie; 6) A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key); 7) Triple Spiral; 8) Beginner's Mind; 9) Ladder Song; 10) One for You, One for Me

A spiritual sci-fi emo rock opus that's as enigmatic as it's great, and the most energetic you've ever heard Bright Eyes.

The People's Key arrived with a shadow looming over its head. Oberst had been making sly references to retiring Bright Eyes in the run-up to the album and so rather than there being excited anticipation for the band's comeback album after a few years of solo and side projects, there was instead a nervous uncertainty over whether The People's Key was actually going to be the last time we'd see Bright Eyes. History and the band's subsequent reunion since have proven this to not be the case, but for over a decade this stood as Bright Eyes' last statement (though they never made any kind of break-up announcement). The thing is, you'd never realise that was the case if you were to just listen to it in isolation. There's no tearful goodbyes, foreshadowing lyrics or emotional looks backwards, beyond the very subtle nod at the start of "Shell Games" to the previous album covers. In fact, the album actively looks forward: The People's Key is the most muscular Bright Eyes album full of storming drums, prominent guitar parts and layers of synthesizer riffs and keyboard noise that at times start veering it into a synth-rock territory, and that's absolutely nothing that the previous Bright Eyes album could have indicated to be their next move. Last time Oberst was adjacent to these waters was with Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, but in contrast that album was a deep descent into a particularly introspective rabbit hole. Interpreting these ideas with this kind of energy and zeal was a new territory for Bright Eyes to conquer and by no means a victory lap of prior triumphs. That isn't what you'd expect from a group who were about to quit to normally do in a situation like this, it sounds like a group who have found themselves revitalised and eager to proceed.

There's a fire in the belly of The People's Key, a desire to not go gently into the night (if there was a night to come) and instead to create something with its decidedly own character and aims. The first thing that makes its presence clear when listening to The People's Key is its vibrant energy, sometimes even sheer force: it's most present in the two singles early on with the bright and buyoant pop smash "Shell Games" and its irresistable 80s keyboard riffs that make it one of the most outward Bright Eyes songs in existence, and immediately after the thrilling hook powerhouse "Jejune Stars" where one of the already most steamrolling pure rock-out anthems ever to come out from Oberst is interlaced with bursts of raw power in its near-blastbeat breakdowns. Bright Eyes fall in the vague umbrella category of indie rock but that "rock" part has only occasionally rang true, so on The People's Key they play catch-up to make sure they fit the moniker. In the latter half of the album the duo of "Triple Spiral" and "Beginner's Mind" pare down most of the synthesizer elements to focus on just the band with similar loud, anthemic aims and besides them being excellent songs ("Triple Spiral" in particular is the low-key secret gem of the record), they really go on to show what a tight (and comparatively small) group of players the core trio have surrounded themselves with on this album.

But that gusto isn't restricted to just how the music sounds, but it's also in what fuels the material. The overall concept that's used as the connective tissue throughout the album really ought to be mentioned because unlike other similar vague themes that are all over Bright Eyes' discography, here it's a defining part of the album's DNA. Like all Bright Eyes albums The People's Key begins with a lengthy intro, this time from Oberst's friend Denny Brewer whose long monologue goes to some wild places over the first couple of minutes, where you're left with a whiplash from the twists and turns he takes as he breathlessly moves from ancient Sumerians to alternate dimensions, passing by Garden of Eden, lizard people and Hitler along the way for good measure. Deep within the half-conspiracy theory, half-prophetic rambling you can find threads between technology and spirituality, the cosmos and the digital age, and those threads are then expanded upon throughout The People's Key not just by Oberst in his songs but by Brewer as well: for the first time in Bright Eyes' history, the opening soundbyte gets briefly reprised and revisited throughout the album (and the brief exchange of words between Oberst and Brewer which closes the album gives it an unexpectedly poignant end). I've seen people, including some of Oberst's inner circle, call The People's Key a sci-fi album thanks to the themes and the imagery it constantly puts forward, and the more you listen to it the easier it is to agree with the notion, given even the personal or introspective songs have plenty of celestial imagery and divine references thrown in. While it's not a concept-concept album as such, it does have the air of a cycle of songs that were put together for a reason and the ongoing lyrical imagery and running themes tie these songs into a connected unit that could only have come from this album, and which immediately identifies them as such if left mingling with other Bright Eyes songs. Once again, taking it this far is something new for Bright Eyes: even when past albums had overarching themes (think Cassadaga and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn), they were primarily kept in the subtext to reward the obsessed fan who would carefully read through the lyric sheets line-by-line. Here that central concept is overt, in both music and content.

You can also hear it burning under Oberst's empassioned delivery, not unlike a man having an epiphany but you're not sure what about. That's particularly the case once the album reaches its halfway mark and goes on a more zealous tract, from "Haile Selassie" to the aforementioned "Triple Spiral" (direct in delivery but cryptic in content). "Haile Selassie" is a surreal wall of religious imagery interspersed with shout-outs to magnetic memory and splitting the atom set to a stuttering earworm rhythm and fervorously joyous delivery, directly leading into the soaring gospel folk of "A Machine Spiritual" which sounds like Bright Eyes' previous material that has undergone whatever conversion it is that stretches across the album; the familiar acoustic strums that have accompanied Oberst since time immemorial have been chopped up and processed so that it sounds like a sample, giving the warmly ringing song a cold and rigid backbone. If there's a line that sums up the record, it's "we form some kind of code from flesh and bone" from "A Machine Spiritual", in its mish-mash of human existence with tech-inspired imagery and delivering it like a religious creed.

That whole "sci-fi" angle - the pervasive textural synthetic sounds, the "machine spiritual" tones as the title track puts it - also brings with it a dreamlike, borderline psychedelic aura to the songs. Though it's evident across the album and "A Machine Spiritual" and "Haile Selassie" downright radiate it, it's naturally the most prevalent in the more atmospheric material. The slowly spreading and expanding "Firewall" introduces the album this way and resembles a darker flipside of Cassadaga's "Clairaudients" (complete with a crescendo of strings), but "Approximate Sunlight" a few songs later is the first key track in this respect. Its skeletal backdrop focused heavily on just Oberst's voice and the drumbeat frequently flutters into a more vividly coloured yet staunchly detached soundscape through all the various production layers from filtered vocals to eery background sounds; and at first it doesn't sound like an obvious highlight but its precisely those moments where it blooms that it suddenly resonates, particularly during the reprise of the bridge as a climax of sorts towards the last third when the song seems to shake off whatever brings it down and, for a moment, takes gentle flight. It works so beautifully in taking this otherwise unassuming track into an essential part of the album's foundation.

There's also "One for You, One for Me" right at the end but before you can reach it, you need to pass through "Ladder Song", the album's single starkly personal and wholly naked track, with just a shaky vocal from Oberst over a lonely, distant piano - some additional elements try to crack through the shields but are left muffled behind, only faintly making their presence known. The song began its life as an eulogy to a friend Oberst lost to suicide, but the final version interweaves into the album's running themes almost subconsciously, yet clinging onto that thoroughly private perspective. In its minimalist vulnerability it breaks away from the rest of the record and makes for a beautiful, gripping contrasting setpiece, clearing the table for the immensely layered "One for You, One for Me" to take over. The album's closer moves back to the record's busy aural landscape but it sounds... joyful? The hypnotic music rides on a shuffling drum pattern (is that two drum kits I hear?), the radiant keyboards cover everything with their bright visage and the guitar almost gets funky from time to time - there's a weariness to the song but it sounds happy, like a well-deserved rest waiting at the end of a long and arduous journey. It's the album's simplest song lyrically, just a list of opposites one after another in what is meant to represent where we are at as a species, but with each loop over both Oberst and the band become more liberated from its neatly structured confinements, ad-libbing and loosening up (I particularly love Oberst's quick "okay!" interjection - I'm not sure why). If Bright Eyes were effectively going to roll the end credits after this song, then "One for You, One for Me" is the glorious ride to the sunset as they raise one more bittersweet toast for their accrued glories. It's unexpected and utterly lovely, downright emotional and slots somewhere among the best songs the Bright Eyes have released. If it had been the end, it would have been unusual - but perfect.

But, in a post-Down in the Weeds... world the album obviously isn't the end, and thus also no longer has the reputation of the last Bright Eyes album. For a long while thought it did feel like this was the end, and it left an enigmatic aftertaste because it was something so different from anything else Bright Eyes had ever done - its uniqueness emphasised by how Oberst said at the time that it was partly because he had gotten all the americana/folk obsession out of his system and was ready for something completely different, only to return right back into that soundscape with his solo career after the People's Key era quietly faded out following the tour. But now the album no longer has to carry that weight and perhaps that actually serves the album really well? The People's Key is a brilliant album and always was - the songwriting is incredibly sharp, the production is indepth and rewarding to dig into and the concept brings it all together as a cohesive piece that pulls you into its bubble. Now that it doesn't have to be this strange end to the journey and it's only another chapter of a long story, it's like a weight has been lifted off its back and it can be judged on its own, independent from the original context - and perhaps that allows this oft-underrated album to finally shine (I've been fully in its embrace from day one). It's still enigmatic but that's entirely down to what a surreal headspace it's in, where these out-of-this-world (often literally) themes mix in with spirited performances and songs full of fire, force and passion. It's nothing like Oberst has ever recorded with or without Bright Eyes - and it's one of the best collections of songs he's ever been involved with.

Physically: There's a couple of different versions of this album and how it's packaged on CD, but my copy is the most boring: just a standard jewel case with no j-cards or sleeves. The booklet is typically to-the-point but thorough: all lyrics spread out across multiple pages, with some extra artwork in the middle of the booklet.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2020 8 "Mariana Trench", "Forced Convalescence", "To Death's Heart (In Three Parts)"

1) Pageturners Rag; 2) Dance and Sing; 3) Just Once in the World; 4) Mariana Trench; 5) One and Done; 6) Pan and Broom; 7) Stairwell Song; 8) Persona Non Grata; 9) Tilt-a-Whirl; 10) Hot Car in the Sun; 11) Forced Convalescence; 12) To Death's Door (In Three Parts); 13) Calais to Dover; 14) Comet Song

The epic-scale return with anthems ready for the apocalypse and sounding slicker than ever.

If you're just catching up on the Bright Eyes discography and haven't followed the long and winding paths of Oberst's several side projects in the interim (and haven't skipped up and down this page in chronological order), the summary is that after The People's Key Oberst put Bright Eyes on shelf for what at the time felt quite a final, if still confusingly inconclusive manner. In the decade or so that followed his writing took a more informal guise as he constantly released albums under his own name as well as with multiple super groups, all with more jovial overtones, less obviously (or seemingly) autobiographical lyrics and a clearly more positive look on life after several years of ups and downs. Suddenly everything started to unravel: false sexual abuse allegations, life-threatening health issues, the sudden death of his brother and his marriage ending in a divorce, all neatly following one another in the space of just a couple of years. By his 2016 solo album Ruminations (and by proxy 2017's follow-up Salutations) the tone and language of his songs had already began to move back towards the waters he sailed under Bright Eyes, and the Better Oblivion Community Center project brought back some of the old musical twists and turns that he'd left behind with The People's Key. The official story behind Bright Eyes' reunion is that Oberst and Walcott started to discuss the idea at a party and made it official after a hasty call to an excited Mogis - but I wouldn't be surprised if lying underneath, Oberst's motivation was how there were certain feelings and thoughts he needed to express that he was most comfortable bringing out under the same name and with the same team mates that he tackled similar thoughts in the past with.

The trio are obviously aware that the return of Bright Eyes would constitute as an Event and Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was plays up to that notion. The extended, rambling intro of "Pageturners Rag" is a classic move that immediately lays out that familiarly patient feel of starting a Bright Eyes album and welcomes the seasoned fans back with a reassuring touch, and "Dance and Sing" seamlessly follows on from it with a build-up to a grand finale of ascending melodies and choirs that launch the album with bombast. The album as a whole is constantly scaling grand heights and with its expansive tracklist, sense of drama and oft-apocalyptic imagery, in its essence it often comes across like an intentional callback to Lifted. The difference is that in 2020 Bright Eyes themselves sound bigger and bolder - and more hi-fi - than before. Down in the Weeds is a record crafted by seasoned veterans using the best means their money can buy, rather than those same folks trying to pretend that they're still the very same mid-20s ramshackle emo messes of human beings recording in scrappy recording studios. The production puts on a fancy suit and sounds more polished than Bright Eyes ever dared to be previously, there's layers of keyboard textures and strings and choirs, and the liner notes feature a notable guest list backing the core members (most notably Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea on bass for most of the album, not that you can really tell - whether that's good or bad?). The record bears the intent of returning with something appropriately grandiose to mark the occasion of the old gang coming back together, but for all new costumes the band are identifiably the same underneath. While there's no attempt to directly recapture the past, the familiar sentiment and tone which tie it into the group's history run through the record; and just from a sonical perspective, there's also a clear, continuing line between where the group left off The People's Key and how they now sound here, as if there had been only a couple of years between both albums.

All of that grand decour is ultimately meant to serve the songs, which when stripped away from the pomp have that classic Oberstian touch underneath that marks this clearly and specifically as a Bright Eyes album, over any other project of his. His writing returns to familiar tropes and elements in such a swerve move that it's almost shocking how he can simply snap back to his old style after years away from it. Once again Obert weaves in-between personal confessionals and distanced narratives in a deeply puncturing manner - most poignantly in the the paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of people in his life he's lost in "To Death's Heart" is the album's emotional apex which the rest of the record almost builds up to. But despite the emotional heftiness of the album, Down in the Weeds sounds triumphant. These may be anthems for the end times (and you just have to love how this was coincidentally released right into the depth of the pandemic, which at the time felt so appropriate but surprisingly hasn't "imprinted" on the album), but they are anthems. Ones with orchestral crescendos unraveling the tension the last three minutes built ("Stairwell Song" and its beautiful "cinematic ending"), ones with soaring choirs to-ing and fro-ing with Oberst (the wonderfully ebbing and flowing "Forced Convalescence") and ones with big choruses to process your own emotions through (well, just about 2/3rds of the album but the single "Marianas Trenc" bears one of the sharpest and catchiest refrains he's written). It's where Down in the Weeds showcases its own distinct character in Bright Eyes' album collection - stadium rock for the damned and the lost.

While the slick production and arrangements of Down in the Weeds primarily work for the album's benefit in what it aims to pull off, in a more minor way they're also the album's only real hindrance. The downside of keeping things so nice and neat is that it doesn't allow for much in the way of dynamic variation and sometimes certain ideas don't quite pop off as much as they could - some of the choir sections are a little muted considering how many people are singing at the same time, the guitar "solos" in "To Death's Heart" are tied to the ground rather than properly break out, and the lackadaisical electronic sway of "Pan and Broom" doesn't distance itself from the rest of the album's sonic swirl all that much in the end. The album keeps itself cohesive and consistent throughout but maybe a bit too much, and you end up missing the degree of messiness and chaos that typically comes with Bright Eyes. While more minimal songs - primarily the double-whammy of straightforwardly jangling "Tilt-a-Whirl" and the barebones piano lament "Hot Car in the Sun" - do tone the overall production values down as sort of palate cleansers, the album ultimately stays in the same place from start to finish, which with fourteen songs can sometimes feel like staying in the same spot for too long (and I'd ironically maybe drop these "palate cleansers"?). The only real outliers you can find "One and Done" which crescendos into exactly the kind of turbulence I referenced before, and the lead single "Persona Non Grata" which jumps out with its decidedly more sinister feel and the array of (wonderful) bagpipes that blast through the gates as the song's "real" chorus; it stirs things up mid-way through the album and always provides a bit of a positive shocker as it suddenly appears. Both end up jumping out quite thrillingly.

But at the same time, despite any issues I might have about the album using the same colours and textures in the same manner across its entire length, it's difficult to be truly critical when so many songs end up sweeping me under my feet when they're playing. So much of the album sounds rejuvenated, powerful and gripping in a manner that makes writing a review for it really tricky if you're listening to it at the same time, because you find yourself so caught in the songs that it distracts from the writing (true story!). Maybe it is just some psychosomatic effect of seeing the Bright Eyes name attached to these songs, but they genuinely hold up as the best overall material Oberst has written since the last Bright Eyes album, even if there's been some great stuff along the way as well. A special mention goes specifically to the way the album concludes, from the precious gorgeousness of "Forced Convalescence" and the epic multi-part centrepiece "To Death's Heart" (which really does distill the album so perfectly into a single song), the joyfully tearful "Dover to Calais" which echoes with bittersweet farewells in its jubilant chorus and finally the well-deserved regal closing movement of "Comet Song" which serves as the last, lonely waltz of the evening before the curtain call. It's a run of songs that both tugs the heartstrings as well as emboldens the soul - theatrically sweeping with exaggerated gestures, but deeply and thoroughly intimate and resonant.

It also leaves Down in the Weeds in a place that could just as well signal a comeback as well as work as a fitting epilogue to a long unfinished story. There's a sense of celebration across the album now that the band's back but it's done through bittersweetly tearful eyes; once again, another reflection of how the album sounds both anthemic as well as wounded at the same time. As a comeback album it achieves the careful balance between reminding of exactly what was missing while the group were gone while also adding something brand new in the back catalogue, and that's commendable. Perhaps the best proof of that lies in a wholly personal anecdote, centered around how I was meant to see Bright Eyes live for the first time in late 2020, touring this album. Thanks to a little intereference from a global pandemic, the concert was rescheduled over and over again until finally, two years later, the group finally arrived in the UK safe and sound and I got to be in the audience. By that point all these new songs formed a comfortable companionship next to all the big "hits" and precious back catalogue deep cuts that warmed my heart; they slotted right in and sounded like they'd been Bright Eyes evergreens for ages. It was a wonderful concert and it brought Bright Eyes' excellent return into a full circle close for me. If this turns out to have only been a temporary reappearance, this serves an appropriately cinematic ending.

Physically: Tri-panel gatefold. Straightforward lyrics booklet, with little in the way of additional artwork beyond a centrefold shot of an extended version of the album cover.



Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1999 6 "A Perfect Sonnet", "Neely O'Hara"

1) A Line Allows Progress, a Circle Does Not; 2) A Perfect Sonnet; 3) On My Way to Work; 4) A New Arrangement; 5) Neely O'Hara

A focused production test run in the form of a short EP, ahead of a full album.

Every Day and Every Night is like a short practice run for the next chapter in Bright Eyes' history. Letting Off the Happiness was already a solid formation to start on but it was rough and uneven in its presentation, so it's now time to get that sorted - in the form of a comfortable five-track outing to see how it all works out. It's all from the same recording sessions (with much the same people), stylistically more tight-knit and it's considerably more produced, not so much that it'd be a hi-fi head's dream but the cosy homebrew indie aesthetic doesn't sound like it's falling apart from the seams anymore. I feel like I could say "this is the real start to Bright Eyes" for the first 3-4 releases Oberst put out and I wouldn't really be wrong either with any of them, this included. Fevers and Mirrors a year later would build from pretty much the exact same spot that Every Day and Every Night ends with.

It's also maybe that Oberst was already saving up his better material for Fevers and Mirrors rather than spend them on this production exercise, because even if you only consider the various Bright Eyes short-plays this still falls a little short. The runaway standout is "A Perfect Sonnet", a towering burst of emotion that erupts in thrumming percussion and swirling keyboards in its choruses, Oberst becoming increasingly more feverous with his delivery the further he gets in the song - it's raw and explosive but also vulnerable and already injured, and its small-scale bombast lifts it above its peers. The EP's closer "Neely O'Hara" also sticks with you, largely because its loop-heavy arrangement intentionally sticks out from the more band-centric sound of the other songs, though thanks to some cunning segueing it acts as a natural finale for the EP, once again highlighting the emphasis on production and sonic construction that seems to have been the releases's main point. The hypnotic loop and the lo-fi hum that coats everything else in the song lends its quiet melancholy a captivating presence, and merges its more tightly with everything preceding it than the more textural side tracts on the debut. As for the other songs, it's a mixed bag of good ideas and sounds but with not particularly captivating writing. "A Line Allows Progress, a Circle Does Not" is a duet with Cursive's Tim Kasher which is most notable for how awkwardly glued together its different sections are and the disjointment throws a distracting spanner in the works every time you're almost getting into the mid-tempo drawl of the song; "On My Way to Work" is a lovely and slowly-building narrative hanging onto Oberst's guitar and an organ, and which doesn't really need the full-band lift-off which almost predictably appears towards the end; and "A New Arrangement" features a beautifully solemn violin that lifts the otherwise by-numbers minimalist misery from being completely forgotten, alongside the long outro which is effectively just the build-up bridge to "Neely O'Hara"'s soundscape.

For what it's worth, Every Day and Every Night makes perfect sense in its context as the gap filler between the albums that book-end it; you understand better how they got from the ramshackle nature of Letting Off the Happiness to the significantly more focused Fevers and Mirrors by realising they were testing through this EP. As such, it's a logical next step to listen for anyone who really loves those albums because it's an extension of both. But then, those albums also offer the same musical ideas in a longer and more exciting form - and for that alone this is not something I ever return to without a prompt of some kind.

Physically: Like the other early Bright Eyes releases it's a white-spined jewel case, with a single-fold booklet featuring lyrics and credits.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2002 7 "From a Balance Beam", "Loose Leaves"

1) From a Balance Beam; 2) Messenger Bird's Song; 3) We Are Free Men; 4) Loose Leaves; 5) (Outro)

Lifted outtakes in a single-in-disguise.

You could consider this the prologue to Lifted, released a few months before the album itself: this EP was recorded in the exact same sessions with the same crew, bears an adjacent art design, "Loose Leaves" actually features the "the story is in the soil" part of the parent album's full title and obviously "From a Balance Beam" from Lifted kicks off this EP as well. Or, if you don't want to beat around the bush about it, you could just see this as the "From the Balance Beam" single in disguise, given the US indie scene's overall allergy to CD singles - together with a set of three outtakes that weren't good enough for the album acting as its b-sides.

I do give Oberst and company some extra credit for trying to make this seem a little bit more than just that. The same careful segueing and linking between songs that occurs throughout the main album also takes place here, even if to a lesser degree, and the unlisted and untitled outro brings the set to a cohesive close by reprising the vibe of the intro to "From a Balance Beam" - it makes There Is No Beginning to the Story at least sound like an entity unto its own, which is a nice touch. It's not quite enough to let the EP escape the fact that these songs were offcuts from the album for a reason, but even if they can't reach the standards of one of the best Bright Eyes albums they're still quite good! "Messenger Bird's Song" is primarily just Oberst and a guitar bringing forward a delicate and vulnerable lament, and if you're in the mood for it it's easy to get lost in its longing melancholy. "We Are Free Men" is a duet between Oberst and Simon Joyner and that vocal interplay is the most interesting thing about the EP's least interesting song, moving along with a slowcore-esquely leisurely pace but it doesn't quite build together the atmospheric strength to make that long drawling tension gripping. "Loose Leaves" finishes the run with a bit of energy, storming through with its stabbing organs and shuffling drums, building towards a slyly emotional crescendo that takes you by surprise. If not for its intentionally scruffy production and sonic aesthetic it could potentially have even been a contender to be on the album - and in its case I feel like its exclusion is because it couldn't find a fitting place in the tracklist, rather than because of strictly qualitative reasons.

It's probably no surprise that "From a Balance Beam" is the highlight of this set of four songs, to the point that it feels pointless to even bring it up in this review: it's a beautifully bittersweet anthem which literally everyone who goes into this EP is likely to be intimately familiar with already, given it's prominently placed on Lifted. Like said, this is basically just a CD single with a different name and "From a Balance Beam" is the A-side, and it stands out just like an A-side does.

Physically: Clear jewel case, a surprisingly thick booklet for an EP with all the lyrics and credits. The design overall borrows the same elements as Lifted, linking the releases further - you can even find illustrations of the miniatures on the cover of this EP within the liner notes to the album.

ONE JUG OF WINE, TWO VESSELS EP (Bright Eyes & Neva Dinova)

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2004 7 "Poison", "I'll Be Your Friend"

1) Tripped; 2) Black Comedy; 3) Poison; 4) I'll Be Your Friend; 5) Get Back; 6) Spring Cleaning

Indie miserablism never sounded so friendly and cosy in this low-stakes collab release.

One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels (which I now realise is almost certainly a titular allusion to this being one release by two bands) is usually billed as a split release between Bright Eyes and Oberst's Omaha indie country peers Neva Dinova but those are usually, well, split. While it's true that you can roughly split this between Bright Eyes songs and Neva Dinova songs, you can only do that by looking at the oblique rightsholder/writing credits in the liner notes and see which songs belongs to whom. Otherwise everyone is credited equally in one big list in the credits and there's no artist split in the back cover, and really the lines between the two acts are blurry at the best of times here, right down to the vocals where even though Oberst and Dinova's Jake Bellows take the lead in turn, they always feature as each other's backing vocalist and the EP-closing "Spring Cleaning" is an Oberst song sung entirely by Bellows. The overall feel here is that it's simply two groups of peers hanging out together in studio and playing songs, appearing as each other's fluid session musicians. It's cosy - the songs are as melancholy as you'd expect from this bunch of artists, but they hold a friendly warmth to them because of the low stakes and friendly demeanour of the proceeds.

(and I appreciate that strictly speaking this should mean that this EP would technically belong under its own header as a separate collaboration rather than being lumped into the general Bright Eyes EP section, but quite frankly I don't really want to create a separate section for a relatively short review of a single six-track EP and as a "split" EP bearing Bright Eyes' name partially it could go here just as well too. What can I say - my site, my illogical whims)

The six songs presented here catch Bright Eyes and Neva Dinova at a particularly laidback, folk-meets-indie-meets-americana crossroads where the tempos are placid, acoustic guitars and quaint strings accompany gently sung vocals singing sweet sad stories and any dynamic peaks are strategically placed for maximum effect. The songs heavier on the Bright Eyes part of the equation are fairly familiar territory to anyone who comes into this through the Bright Eyes connection (which I assume are 95% of the listeners) and here act as the slightly rowdier songs in a very loose definition of that term: "Black Comedy" paces forward on its chugging guitar rhythm and lithe guitar solos, while "I'll Be Your Friend" is the most fun the EP gets up to and features one of the most memorable appearances of a saxophone solo in an indie song. "Spring Cleaning" could be taken right out of the pages of a manual to Bright Eyes ballads, if it weren't for Bellows singing the lead instead of Oberst which is at the same time both irrationally out-of-place as well as intriguingly captivating. They're good songs, but the bigger surprise is that even though I am one of the people coming into this because of Bright Eyes, it's Neva Dinova who almost steal the show. I'm still of two minds about Bellows' voice - simultaneously both narcoleptic and hypnotic - but it's undeniable just how well it accentuates the understatedly excellent melodic rises that occur throughout "Tripped" and "Poison", so much that they're almost like curveballs that come out of nowhere and catch your attention. Both "Tripped" and "Poison" are full of those little hook-like touches, accentuated by some beautiful and suave guitar playing throughout and with secretly lush arrangements that somehow sound stripped down even though there's so much going on, and they're possibly my two favourite songs on the entire EP; on the flipside "Get Back" is maybe a little too languid and sounds like a slog until it hops onto its chorus stroll still half-asleep, and even though it's a big earworm it's got the least to say for itself out of the songs featured.

I feel like I'm repeating myself a lot but the downright casual, no-strings-attached atmosphere of One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels is its biggest asset: it's just a bunch of friends and acquaintances operating within the same musical circles laying down some tracks together over a couple of days because someone suggested it for the fun of it and everyone had an empty spot in their calendars in the middle of the US Midwest winter. All that is pure conjecture and how I imagine it all went down, because that comfortably collaborative nature radiates so strongly out of it. The songs and performances are solid and reward those who go back to them to appreciate the subtleties, and while I'd struggle to give any of these songs a spot in a grand career-arching highlights compilation, they are readily inviting to go back to. One of the special allures of the EP format is that due to the short lengths it's really easy to find yourself repeating the same handful of songs over and over again once the disc has stopped spinning, and One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels demonstrates that in troves because queuing up again once it's over comes almost automatically. As ironic as it may seem, sadsack indie is my comfort zone to contentedly snuggle up into - and this is exactly what I could refer to by saying that.

Physically: Clear jewel case with a fold-out liner notes booklet, on one side all the lyrics and on the other side the full sketch that the cover is a close-up of.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2007 8 Besides "Four Winds" of course, "Reinvent the Wheel", "Stray Dog Freedom"

1) Four Winds; 2) Reinvent the Wheel; 3) Smoke without Fire (with M. Ward); 4) Stray Dog Freedom; 5) Cartoon Blues; 6) Tourist Trap

Cassadaga b-sides: less adorned and more freewheeling than their album counterparts.

"Four Winds" was released as the lead single to Cassadaga and in a true Bright Eyes spirit, it came in the form of a full EP rather than a standard single release. The five extra songs therefore are - in effect - outsiders from the same sessions, but the decision must have been made quite early into the album's creation process. Cassadaga is a lush, richly arranged record draped in elegant string sections, vocal harmonies and layered elements and "Four Winds" in the beginning is a reminder of that, but "Reinvent the Wheel" aside the rest of the EP is decidedly less decorated. The credits lists are still impressive (both Janet Weiss and Ben Kweller appear as session hands, and M. Ward features on more than just the track with his name on it) but sound-wise they're if not more straightforward, than more to the point. "Stray Dog Freedom" is a country-twanged rocker built around a big chorus that could have been an early album highlight on another Bright Eyes album, "Cartoon Blues" is a slightly unhinged energetic romp that threatens to unravel with each step it takes and is the most storming song of the entire session, and both "Smoke without Fire" and "Tourist Trap" are atmospheric, ambient-acoustic campfire songs, hushed and beautiful. They are, to some extent, reminiscent of past Bright Eyes releases rather than Cassadaga specifically which might explain why they never got the extra layers the rest of the album did, but their more informal nature sets them apart as well. They're good songs, veering into great - only the M. Ward duet "Smoke without Fire" feels like it stalls the EP ever-so-slightly, but that could just be because M. Ward's voice has never been a friend with my ears.

That leaves us with "Reinvent the Wheel" of the non-album songs and it could have been a Cassadaga cut in form: those signature string sections and beautiful backing vocals are on full display, perhaps even moreso than on the relatively (in context) unadorned "Four Winds". It's a gorgeous eulogy to a lost friend (Elliot Smith?) that - like all the best eulogies - is more celebratory than it is outright sad, though the melancholia is always peeking from round the corner. The arrangement is gorgeous with the way it ebbs and flows but always highlighting Oberst in the center, the unusually straightforward lyrics have a poignancy to them that really shines through the melodies, and it's... just a really wonderful song. Perhaps a little too boyant for Cassadaga, but it's songs like this why EPs and singles are a delight to hunt down. It's the EP's highlight.

Apart from the majestic "Four Winds", of course - but there's a Cassadaga review to discuss that specifically.

Physically: Jewel case with a booklet containing all the lyrics and a plethora of code and what look like ciphers. Wikipedia tells me it's all arcane mythological and religious references, which'd tie it with the album.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2011 8 "Arc of Time (Time Code)"

1) Firewall; 2) Shell Games; 3) Arc of Time (Time Code); 4) Bowl of Oranges; 5) Lover I Don't Have to Love; 6) Ladder Song

An excellent but tragically short snapshot of The People's Key tour.

The Live Recordings EP is a little postcard from the People's Key tour, featuring... well, live recordings from the tour. There's three songs from the album the band were promoting at the time and three back catalogue choices, and in general everything is just great. The recording quality is excellent, the line-up Bright Eyes had for this tour pack a punch and everyone's on great form here (including and especially Oberst). The songs from The People's Key translate well live: while they are heavily textural there's a tight band interplay beneath all the layers, and that really gets emphasised live and the guitar parts in particular rise up in this setting. "Firewall" booms loud and acts as a dramatic scene-setter, "Shell Games" always sounded like it was going to pop off live and so it does (particularly in that "everyone count to THREE!" shout-along bit), and the subtler instrumentation behind the piano on "Ladder Song" is more prevalent in this version and makes it all the more ethereal. On the old faithfuls both "Bowl of Oranges" and "Arc of Time" are performed close to the studio versions but with that extra 'liveliness' that comes through in a live environment, and "Arc of Time" in particular is a perfect match both for the context of the new album and the dynamics of the band - it's my favourite performance on this EP. "Lover I Don't Have to Love" serves as the epic penultimate climax of the EP as it closes with a brand new trumpet solo and extended instrumental section, ditching behind its murky creepiness to become a live showstopper.

Really, the only fault here is that this is just an EP. This tour would have been great grounds for an entire live album, and certainly one that would have been more exciting than the one Bright Eyes live album we have so far. A live EP is the definition of a filler release that's practically bound to lay dormant in a music collection, but it's a testament to the strength of this one that on the rare occasions I do bring it out, I want to keep playing over and over again.

As an aside, it's slightly unfortunate how the band walk onto the stage just as the soundbyte that opens "Firewall" reaches the tangent about Hitler and so it sounds like the crowd is cheering for der Führer's name...

Physically: Digipak with no booklet and generally little information inside beyond the bare minimum credits for a live album - there's not even dates for the recordings or line-up credits.


Conor Oberst

Years active: Genres:
2008 (properly) onwards Singer/Songwriter, Americana

Oberst released a few demo albums on cassette when he was barely a teenager, but his proper solo recordings began in 2008 while taking a brief break from Bright Eyes. When Bright Eyes went on hiatus after 2012, releasing albums under his own name became his primary path for a good few years. Whilst he's obviously the heart and soul of Bright Eyes and the songs aren't worlds apart from his main project, there's a more distinct americana vibe to his solo albums and with the absence of Walcott and Mogis, the production is also more straightforward.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2008 7 "Cape Canaveral", "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)", "Souled Out!!!"

1) Cape Canaveral; 2) Sausalito; 3) Get-Well-Cards; 4) Lenders in the Temple; 5) Danny Callahan; 6) I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital); 7) Eagle on a Pole; 8) NYC - Gone, Gone; 9) Moab; 10) Valle Mistico (Ruben's Song); 11) Souled Out!!!; 12) Milk Thistle

Is this... is this Oberst being happy? A lighthearted holiday card of country-twanged rockers and relaxed acoustic snapshots.

Given this is Conor Oberst’s debut release under his own name (excluding any prehistoric recordings), the big question is obviously how is this any different from the already primarily Oberst-centric, at this time still pre-hiatus Bright Eyes. To his credit, the self-titled album (which I presume is eponymous to directly make it obvious this is not a Bright Eyes album) does a great job establishing that and you only need to look at the lazily blissed out Oberst on the front cover, hanging from a hammock, to get the idea. Releasing music under his own name means Oberst could take a practical sabbatical of sorts from the confessional singer/songwriter route and increasingly indepth production of the Bright Eyes project, and in fact this album is almost literally a holiday: Oberst and a number of close-knit friends spent a few months in Mexico casually recording the album while enjoying the sun, the extended stay partly due to Oberst falling in love with his eventual (now ex-)wife. If he hadn't done solo gigs and announced his plans right before he took a plane across the border, you could easily think that the birth of the album happened out of complete coincidence in-between all the rest and recreation.

What you have here is the most upbeat record Oberst has ever released. Stylistically he doesn’t stray too far away from his signature sound and the general nods to americana that the last couple of Bright Eyes albums were largely characterised by, though the more stripped down production almost naturally makes the latter come through a little more. The key thing is, the Oberst of old would never have found himself smiling this much on an album. There are a few quiet moments reminiscent of what we’re used to from him (mostly the intimate man-and-guitar cuts like “Lenders in the Temple” and “Eagle on a Pole”) but by and far Oberst is kicking back and winding down here with relaxed campfire ballads, major chord singalongs and at it most irreverent, a couple of moments of sheer chaotic fun - the saloon-tossing “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)” is so out of character that it could cause a whiplash but you can’t help but chuckle with it, and the stomping and romping "NYC - Gone, Gone" is as jolly as it is short. The jovial atmosphere of the sessions comes across very naturally - the album doesn't make a point about being a more positive spin on Oberst's songwriting hand, it just happens to be so.

The casual way of the album coming together also means that the stakes are lower and, to put it bluntly, I can't imagine Oberst to have been wholly invested in the material he was cooking up during the sessions. He's still hitting strong melodies but for the most part there's not much in the way of particularly poignant lyrics or truly captivating songs. Even the best songs sometimes seem almost accidentally so, and for much of the album the biggest charm comes from Oberst simply being in such a good mood playing these songs raucously with his buddies; when you do get something more traditionally in his ballpark like the hauntingly atmospheric "Lenders in the Temple" or the dramatically dynamic "Eagle on a Pole", they're like party crashers intruding into a context they don't quite belong to. “Cape Canaveral” and “Souled Out!!!” in particular reflect the album’s heart clearly: the former sounds so relaxed it feels like the song Oberst would be strumming in his hammock while the latter’s lackadaisical band interjections give the impression that song's direction was partly just ad libbed in the whim of the moment. They're the two strongest songs on the album but the same theme runs across the tracklist.. and honestly, that's all fine with me. Absolutely none of these songs could ever stand toe-to-toe with the average Bright Eyes cut but when these songs are playing and you're caught in the moment, a lot of this is quite good fun - I’m not sure if I’d ever want to urgently hear e.g. “Danny Callahan” or "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)" specifically, but when they come on during the album I can't help but tap my foot and do a little feel-good jig to them.

In comparison to the Bright Eyes back catalogue, Oberst's solo debut can at worst come across a little wishy-washy and inessential. But trying to equate the two also feels like missing the point of why this was released outside Bright Eyes altogether. It’s hard to be upset when you can genuinely hear how wide a grin Oberst has on his face, and this vacation postcard of his manages to have a surprisingly lasting charm to it that carries it well beyond the material’s "objective" core strength. It’s a very comfortable, pleasant listen, in the best way of using that word: it's a lazy summer evening vibe, enjoying the refreshing breeze and the still-warm weather with no care in the world. In Oberst's world that translates into a set of straightforward, compelling little rockers and chilled-out sunset lullabies (see "Milk Thistle" in particular). All that cover image needs is a "wish you were here!" scribbled over it and it would nail the vibe - and while I'd probably have been happier to see him hard at work on his day job, Oberst sure does make his little trip to Mexico sound inviting.

Physically: Jewel case with a lyrics booklet, all very standard.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2014 6 "Zigzagging Toward the Light", "Hundreds of Ways", "Desert Island Questionnaire"

1) Time Forgot; 2) Zigzagging Towards the Light; 3) Hundreds of Ways; 4) Artifact #1; 5) Lonely at the Top; 6) Enola Gay; 7) Double Life; 8) Kick; 9) Night at Lake Unknown; 10) You Are Your Mother's Child; 11) Governor's Ball; 12) Desert Island Questionnaire; 13) Common Knowledge

A pleasant if unremarkable effort to pull together disparate songs for a solo album, with bookends that promise so much more.

Rather ironically, Oberst's solo albums are best defined by his chosen collaborators (or absence thereof) for each album: there's always a central person or people who Oberst brings to the fold to bring his latest songs to life. On Upside Down Mountain that role is filled by singer/songwriter Jonathan Wilson, Oberst's almost-literal neighbour at the time - the two friends had talked about collaborating on an album for years and in a roundabout way that ended up being Oberst's second solo album proper. Oberst had been taking a break and enjoying newly married life since 2009's Monsters of Folk cycle had finished, but kept writing songs intermittently throughout. Wilson's role then became to bring the disparate material recorded across the past three years all together in a neat package, and his chiming guitar work and keyboard textures act as the glue in-between Oberst's material, waving between old-fashioned Oberstian confessionals and more whimsical material inspired by the sidetrack projects immediately prior. The pair also crossed ways with the Swedish indie pop duo First Aid Kit along the way and recruited them to sing backing vocals across the entire record, and the duo's harmonies are layered across the entire album (with minimal other voices involved) as another combining agent. The end result is a sleek and polished record with a loose but defined sound throughout.

Case in point, Upside Down Mountain ends in a completely different place and mindset than it starts with, but it still sounds like it's all part of the same journey thanks to the shared arrangement choices. The album kicks off effectively where Oberst left off last time, in the relaxed and upbeat surroundings of his late 2000s projects. "Time Forgot" is centered around Oberst with his acoustic guitar strummingly brightly and openly into a vast space, with the album's other key components and sonic elements gently introducing one after another as an overture of sorts before the rest of the record kicks in; the lackadaisically rocking "Zigzagging Toward the Light" is a leisurely advancing stroll that builds up to its woah-oh-punctuated chorus and soaring middle eight, almost immediately revealing itself to be an obvious highlight; "Hundreds of Ways" is the most jubilant Oberst has perhaps ever sounded, adding a dose of tropical folk to its dizzyingly swivelling, horn section-heavy burst of musical sunshine, and even the lyrics are uncharacteristically reassuring and motivational. It's a really strong opening that suggests a brand new direction for a man who's now living a new life in a stable relationship. And by the end of the album everything comes crushing down again and Oberst returns to his masterful wistfulness, with Wilson's textures carrying his aching melancholy into new directions. "Desert Island Questionnaire" has the same directly soaring personality as "Zigzagging Toward the Light" but now re-utilised to make its existential questioning leave the listener feel even more miniscule - the song slowly grows into a real anthem, blossoming into an explosive career stand-out for Oberst that towers above ominously and does it while sounding so bold and powerful, with a hell of a chorus melody and an excellent set of lyrics. It then segues into "Common Knowledge", bookending the album with once again Oberst and guitar in the spotlight, with Wilson's atmospherically gusting keyboard patterns creating a wide open space above Oberst, like it's just him and you below a breathtakingly massive night sky. If the album begins with by grabbing you by the sleeves, it ends by leaving you alone to contemplate everything that just happened.

Then there are also the other songs in between.

Despite my familiarity with this album I don't really know where exactly "the dip" lies with Upside Down Mountain but as a whole, that big bundle of songs that form its core and center just do not lit up the same way as the album's first and last steps do. There isn't a single, distinct factor that would jump out as a culprit either. Oberst is delivering good material throughout, with the cheeky "Enola Gay" and the acoustic breather "You Are Your Mother's Child" standing out particularly well in that respect, but the production can feel almost stifling in its cleanliness during those same moments and I wonder if "Lonely at the Top" would feel like less of a slog with a cosier, warmer style of production. But then the production and the direction taken by Oberst and Wilson with their arrangements really shine elsewhere, like in the space created around "Artifact #1" (particularly whenever Oberst dramatically pauses at the start of each chorus) or the lush flute outro that graces "Night at Lake Unknown" and lifts it up. Oberst also said around the time that he was attempting to return to his classic songwriting voice and sometimes that works (see: the already highlighted songs) and sometimes it sounds like a man playing a role from his past: "You Are Your Mother's Child" in particular shifts constantly and disruptingly between affectingly personal and borderline coy (and the fact that its surprisingly moving last chorus and the irrationally irritating Snickers line are in the same song just plain bothers me).

Something just doesn't come together right as a whole. The feeling and memory that Upside Down Mountain has left me with is an overbearing pleasantness: an album that is most enjoyable to existing long-term fans for the sole reason that it's more material from a familiar voice whose mere presence has something comforting to it, and so the record never becomes a chore to listen. Neither does it stick for the long run though because it's neither a particularly strong set of songs on average and its soundworld isn't so unique that it would distinguish itself on that alone. The album starts so strongly that I always begin to doubt my own recollections about the record, and the twofer it finishes with rivals the best album closures across Oberst's career - and then there's that mass of easy to listen track titles that can be a pleasant surprise when they pop over on a library shuffle but which leave with little lingering presence the moment they finish and the next song begins.

Or to put it another way, Upside Down Mountain is a release from a professional songwriter that exists because after a few years of gathering things in his drawer he had enough songs to bundle onto an album, put together because that's what professional songwriters do rather than because there was a calling to commit these songs in particular on tape. For seasoned Oberst-heads there's bound to be something here to keep with you; the rest get shelved with the record, nice and neat as they are.

Physically: Thick gatefold, with a fold-out poster for the lyrics and credits. The paintings featured in the artwork inside and outside are by Ian Felice, of The Felice Brothers - a future set of Oberst solo album collaborators.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2016 8 "Tachycardia", "Barbary Coast (Later)", "Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)"

1) Tachycardia; 2) Barbary Coast (Later); 3) Gossamer Thin; 4) Counting Sheep; 5) Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch); 6) The Rain Follows the Plow; 7) A Little Uncanny; 8) Next of Kin; 9) You All Loved Him Once; 10) Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out

Stripped down, vulnerable and born out of pain - but Oberst forges a connection with the listener through that immediate intimacy.

Oberst didn't intend to record Ruminations. The last two years prior to the album had been particularly hellish for him, starting with a sexual abuse allegation by a fan in 2013 which swiftly pulled Oberst into the center of a media frenzy and intense speculation, rumour-mongering and - in lack of a better phrase for it - imminent cancellation; his name was eventually cleared the next year when the accuser admitted to have made everything up, but the turmoil had left its toll on Oberst both mentally and physically. The latter culminated in a cyst developing in his brain during Desaparedicos' comeback tour and though he survived the ordeal without serious damage, it was the last sign Oberst needed to take a break from everything. So, he moved back to his old home grounds in Omaha to recover in isolation and familiar surroundings and though it wasn't the intention at all, as artists are wont to do he eventually began to occupy his time by writing songs and recording basic demos with just a piano or a guitar. These were all ostensibly earmarked as work-in-progress material for an eventual album that he'd eventually return to with a full band once he was ready, but the people who he let hear the songs in their embryonic state told him that these vulnerably stripped-down recordings were already powerful in their current state. After being convinced by his confidants, Oberst booked a couple of days in a studio to quickly capture those songs onto tape properly and so Ruminations came to be.

Just to get the obvious comparison point out of the way, Ruminations is a classic case of a "Nebraska album" - i.e. barebones demos recorded within the solitude of the artist's home that unintentionally become the definitive versions of those songs. And just like with Bruce, Oberst's songs on Ruminations are also defined by their inherent, reigning melancholy. While Oberst had kept up a brave face in the public during his difficulties, he was bottling up all the havoc that the ordeals were building within him and the songs he recorded during his convalescence period reflected that. His health issues were one thing - and they get referenced a few times throughout - and if the lyrics are accurate Oberst coped through leaning too heavily on drinking which wasn't making him feel any better, but it's the court case that casts the biggest shadow over the entire record. Many of the songs allude to him feeling betrayed and abandoned by people that he trusted or kept close and finding solace in just someone who sticks around, and after individual lines and verses throughout the whole album the whole tract culminates in "You All Loved Him Once" which all but spells out the borderline resentment he felt as people seemingly turned their backs on him at a moment's notice. A lot of it's also up for interpretation: Oberst switches between narrative persons and mixes together his usual character studies with more blatantly autobiographical lines, so that eventually it's not completely clear which is which, and obscuring the lines between the two is likely the whole point so as for him not to expose his wounds too much - but the sentiment and emotion are there, clear as daylight. Oberst isn't a stranger to dark nights of the soul but this is the most candidly frank he's been about it, with little attempt to purple-prose it up. He's not feeling great and he's at times nearly uncomfortably blunt about it.

Despite that, it'd be difficult to call Ruminations a sad album - solemn and melancholy for sure, but not all grim or tragic. Throughout the ten songs Oberst is either accompanied only by a piano or an acoustic guitar, swapping between songs - the only other instrument you can hear from time to time is a harmonica, which further underlines the Nebraska-esqueness of it all. Oberst has proven time and time again that that's all he needs to make a song into a powerful statement, and often his quiet intermissions are highlights in the generally more fleshed-out albums. So, it shouldn't be any surprise that Ruminations retains its strengths throughout and if anything, I would have even removed that occasional harmonica from most songs because too often it feels like an unnecessary (and awkwardly loudly mixed) addition; only on "Tachycardia" does it lift the song to a different tier when it appears, like a really rustic equivalent of a soaring guitar riff. What is a little more surprising (given the context and the vibe of it all) is that it's only at times when the music reflects the tone of the lyrics. It's a key facet to remember that in the back of Oberst's head these were going to be candidates for another solo album in vein of his previous ones, and that's where the music stems from. "Tachycardia" swoons forward with a melodic lilt, "Gossamer Thin" ebbs and flows beautifully and with the weight of a feather, "A Little Uncanny" is a little more raucous and reminiscent of his late 2000s americana heydays, "Mamah Borthwick" is like a gentle lullaby, and so forth. "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out" is the light at the end of the album's tunnel that radiates a relaxed, embracing happiness and comradery so strongly through words and arrangement that - after an album full of grayscale moodiness - it feels genuinely warming. Even at his most obviously downbeat Oberst sounds like an understanding, comforting friend rather than disappearing into darkness: "Barbary Coast (Later)" is one of most aching songs on the record, but wraps around the listener like a gentle embrace that isn't hiding the blows, but shields from them.

The keyword with Ruminations is in fact "intimate", and that doesn't necessarily mean downcast. The melodies and structures are most of the time relatively simple and to-the-point, with a central hook that guides Oberst's voice through most of the song and only breaking down when it's time for a chorus or an equivalent b-section. But it's all Oberst needs: nothing shows his charisma more than the grip he has when it's just him and limited accompaniments, and stretching across an entire album makes it personal for both the artist and the listener, and there's a kind of direct cosiness that comes from that connection. Some of that is coloured by personal context that'd be ridiculous not to bring up. If you were an EU citizen in the UK during 2016, i.e. the year when the infamous EU Referendum revealed its surprise results, the whole year was wrought with uncertainty and fear for the future. Ruminations inadvertently became one of the albums that helped me process what was going on and gave a degree of emotional support, precisely because it was such a naked release from a trusted and resonant voice - "Barbary Coast" is a key track for me here precisely because of how much it felt like an appropriately aching blanket. In fact, if you're an established fan of Oberst, then the idea of a stripped-down record from him should sound like an exciting prospect in itself, and the point proves itself by the special aura that Ruminations has. For all its apparent melancholy and introversion, its vulnerability sounds like something you can lean on.

Ruminations is, to date, my favourite Oberst solo album and that is in some parts likely because it is just Oberst direct and unfiltered, without any collaborative voices that he's trying to do his best with not to make his songs sound like Bright Eyes. Though the versions of the songs presented have been recorded in a professional studio they haven't lost their quiet intimacy. Never once do they sound like they're still works-in-progress either: the songs do not crave for a bigger sound nor are there any obvious gaps to fill in their arrangements (the only giveaway of the origins is two lines in "Counting Sheep" where Oberst utters placeholder syllables in place of names). Ruminations is a complete, fully realised piece of work as it is, and not just that but it's also a strong and often beautiful album - and something that's perhaps been a strangely long time coming given where Oberst's strengths lie and the genre he overall operates in. It is, therefore, welcome in its appearance.

Physically: Contained in a box-like case, like an o-card or a slipcase but without the inner section: the CD and poster-style lyrics sheet go directly into the case. The back cover features the tracklist but far more prominently a short introductionary essay from Oberst's friend Simone Felice who sets the stage for the album's context and ad hoc nature - and hints at Oberst's other album in the works.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2017 7 "Overdue", "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out", "Tachycardia"

1) Too Late to Fixate; 2) Gossamer Thin; 3) Overdue; 4) Afterthought; 5) Next of Kin; 6) Napalm; 7) Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch); 8) Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out; 9) Barbary Coast (Later); 10) Tachycardia; 11) Empty Hotel by the Sea; 12) Anytime Soon; 13) Counting Sheep; 14) Rain Follows the Plow; 15) You All Loved Him Once; 16) A Little Uncanny; 17) Salutations

Same songs as before and some new, now with new arrangements and carried by jovial comradery which colours them with whole new shades.

Salutations was always the end goal, and part of me wishes I would have been able to hear this without first listening to Ruminations. First getting used to what was effectively polished up demos, where each song was simplified down to its bare minimum and often with a lower tempo, meant that Salutations faced an unexpected obstacle to bypass when suddenly those songs were jauntier and a whole lot brighter - you have to basically readjust how you even approach the songs you already know so that you can shake off their formerly forlorn guises off your memory as you listen to these "final" versions. So Salutations took time with me, entirely because of me. Funnily enough, reimagining sparsely arranged songs with various "full band" getups is something I like to spend time doing simply as a thought exercise (I don't think I'd ever be a particularly creative musician but a dictatorial producer? Absolutely), and so I can't help but find the whole deal extra entertaining - and overall, it's worth to get over any hang-ups or attachments one might have towards the Ruminations versions, because Salutations has plenty more of its own to give.

When it finally came time for Oberst to commit these songs on tape in the way he ultimately wanted, he opted once again to build a make-shift band around him. This time he chose to do it with an already established band in form of The Felice Brothers and their frequent accomplices: they're all over the album bar two songs, with a limited amount of other guests to fill particular gaps (extra backing vocals, a string quartet). Working with a band who already have a chemistry with each other shows in both a particularly tight performance as well as a relaxedly jovial atmosphere, which suits Oberst going back towards the more lackadaisy, americana-adjacent rock sound familiar from the self-titled solo album. The style is grounded with not much in the way of lofty ambitions, but in a positively intimate manner. Though there are more instruments (with the Ruminations-harmonica also making a return), the songs underneath are still lonely and inwards-facing, stemming from a particularly difficult period in Oberst's life - so while they make a lot more noise here and the mood is altogether a little more irreverent, the impression is that of close companions finding strength and joy in playing these songs together. That aspects helps to retain that more personal touch and lends Salutations a warm sense of cosiness which connects with the listener too. It feels like that aspect is something Oberst has always aspired towards with all his side journeys outside Bright Eyes, and it's realised excellently here. It's a great sound and a great band.

All ten songs from Ruminations make their appearance here, as does the single b-side "Afterthought" - on top of that there's six brand new cuts, bringing the total to a chonky 17 songs across 68 minutes. The Ruminations songs are mostly on comfortable territory: the songs are obviously good in their core as the previous album already proved, and the re-arrangements are by and far done well. There are none that I'd automatically place over their earlier counterparts, though the glass-raising bar anthem "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out" does raise the roof a bit better with a feel-good band swing behind it. Likewise though, none are automatically eyebrow-raising either: the new arrangement of "Barbary Coast" feels a bit too much with its textural guitars and elongated violin notes, but that's clearly a me problem because I got so attached to the original song that its quiet nakedness feels more definitive for it. That general attachement to the original versions applies across the board but making a concentrated effort to look past it, there's a lot to love. Many of the songs breathe with a different kind of life in their lungs , like "Tachycardia" which feels like a particularly inventive switcharoo as its former piano-lead arrangement is now switched to a guitar-oriented approach and various instruments coming in and out give the song a sense of dynamics which simply weren't there originally. Both versions stand next to one another as completely unique takes on the same lyric and melody, and the same applies across the board: "You All Loved Him Once" no longer has its quiet bitterness, but now aches with resignation and that's a whole different emotional gravitas to enjoy. None of the re-recordings sound like lazy retreads, as the arrangements are genuinely expanded upon with often quite a lovely sense of detail: most of the songs feature either a violin or an accordion (and often both) and those parts are without exception beautifully textural and highlight Oberst and his melodies wonderfully. A special shout-out has to go the session drummer legend Jim Keltner whose handiwork is on every single song (including behind the desk, co-producing the album with Oberst) and whose drum parts carry a lot of finesse and variation, adding a distinct character into the songs.

That leaves us with the six "new" songs, all of which seem to have been composed in various different parts of the wider journey across the two albums. "Too Late to Fixate" and "Empty Hotel by the Sea" are closest to the Ruminations material and mingle into the group comfortably, holding a quiet melancholy in their heart but comradery vigour in their performances here. That said it is perhaps also clear why they didn't appear on the first go-around, and the same goes to unknown-to-most "Afterthought" which never quite picks up and features some the clunkier lyrics on the album. "Napalm" and "Overdue" sound like they were composed with the band already present and vibrantly shoot out of the barrel: the raucous "Napalm" in particular represents opening the cork on all that bottled up energy while Oberst was resting in his cabin and now yelps and hollers with fire under its feet, and though it stands out like a sore thumb in what is otherwise a somewhat more gentlemanly bunch of songs even at their wildest, it's a lot of fun. "Overdue" on the other hand is by far the best song out of all the new ones and in fact stands up as one of the album's overall highlights, culminating in a thrillingly great vocal interplay section that gets a backing vocal geek like me fawning over. "Anytime Soon" and the title track are the outliers as they're the only songs without The Felice Brothers, and instead mostly feature Jonathan Wilson with whom Oberst worked together on Upside Down Mountain. Keltner and Oberst's production ensure they fall in line with the rest of the songs and the title track especially is the perfect closer for the entire two-album cycle's long journey with its slow and hazy but peacefully content weariness. "Anytime Soon" meanwhile gets lost in the crowd and pleasant as it is, it's reminiscent of that somewhat hard-to-track middle section of Upside Down Mountain.

On the back of that, the easy point to make here would be pointing out the length: nearly 70 minute length is something that only few albums can execute with confidence and above all consistency, and I've already pointed out two songs that the album would be tighter without. I've certaintly spent paragraphs whinging about less, in terms of over (or under) length. But actually, it's not that crucial for Salutations. The combined power of the largely good songs, Oberst's charisma and The Felice Brothers' chemistry make Salutations a surprisingly breezy listen where it genuinely doesn't feel like it's nearly an hour and ten minutes long. If anything the Achilles' heel here is that everything is consistently good without ever raising too high above that, and there's nothing that would immediately jump out as a surefire inclusion to an Oberst best of if I were to pull one out of my rear on a whim. That includes the Ruminations songs even though I loved them the first time around and, well, that's where we circle back to the opening paragraph and its wish to be able to hear these songs and not think of the quietly skeletal renditions that became a rock to lean on during a difficult year, and which sometimes places their shiny new and expanded versions at an unfair disadvantage. But don't let that leave Salutations neglected, and I speak on that with experience: Salutations sometimes feels like the most accurate realisation of Oberst's unspoken goal of making his solo albums feel like friendlier and looser affairs compared to his other projects. You can't not compare it to its predecessor for obvious reasons, but Salutations slots so nicely into Oberst's back catalogue that I'm glad he didn't consider these songs done after Ruminations was already out in the world.

Physically: Standard gatefold with a poster-style lyrics sheet. The inner fold features a number of candid photos from the recording sessions with fun nicknames for everyone involved, while on the back cover other members of the band are trying to resuscitate Oberst after the front cover's incident.

Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band

Years active: Genres:
2008 - 2010 Americana, Folk Rock, Rock

The band that Oberst put together for his 2008 self-titled solo album enjoyed playing together so much that they kept going for a few years as a separate project; and while Oberst's solo album was technically Mystic Valley Band's debut album, the subsequent releases would also feature more central contributions from the other members, making the band something a bit more than just Oberst's backing crew. And they had matching jackets, too! The line-up: Conor Oberst (vocals, guitar), Jason Boesel (drums, vocals), Nik Freitas (guitars, vocals), Taylor Hollingsworth (guitars, vocals), Macey Taylor (bass, vocals), Nate Walcott (keyboards etc).


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2009 5 "To All the Lights in the Windows", "Big Black Nothing", "Eagle on a Pole"

1) Slowly (Oh So Slowly); 2) To All the Lights in the Windows; 3) Big Black Nothing; 4) Air Mattress; 5) Cabbage Town; 6) Ten Women; 7) Difference Is Time; 8) Nikorette; 9) White Shoes; 10) Bloodline; 11) Spoiled; 12) Worldwide; 13) Roosevelt Room; 14) Eagle on a Pole; 15) I Got the Reason #2; 16) Snake Hill

Oberst giving the spotlight to the other members is a pleasant surprise but not enough to pull this overlong ramble into a good shape.

The gang that Oberst pulled together for his first official solo album had such a great time together that they just kept going. Dropping the Mystic Valley Band moniker on the album cover is effectively just canonising the band that Oberst had formed around his self-titled solo album, to the extent that you could argue that Outer South is technically the second album by this outfit after Conor Oberst: outside the artist tag this picks up where the previous album left off, and Oberst is still on a great big holiday from his usual shenanigans where he has traded introspective litanies for major chord rocking. Outer South is possibly even more laidback than its predecessor - it's all good vibes here, even on the (very few) downtempo moments.

Let's grab the bull by the horns though. 16 tracks, 70 minutes - that's a bulky ordeal that even the best songwriters aren't always able to pull off successfully. Usually the success is found by leaning directly into the epic-scale excess in one way or another, and in fact Oberst himself has got Lifted in his back catalogue and that album is a grand success partly because its songs are allowed to grow and build into bombastic scales (to the length 13 songs and 73 minutes, for those counting). Simply bundling together a whole lot of songs typically doesn't work as well, but that's the angle Outer South goes for. Reportedly the group was overflowing with new material for the duration that they hung out together and their concerts frequently featured a number of unreleased material each night, and so the point of Outer South feels like it is to capture that flurry of creativity while it's fresh. It's also good to note that this is a Mystic Valley Band album and so whilst Oberst is the lead, the rest of the gang gets to contribute too and I'm sure part of the reason the tracklist is this long is so that the spotlight could be politely share: Jason Boesel brings "Difference Is Time" and "Eagle on a Pole", Nik Freitas leads "Big Black Nothing" and "Bloodline", Taylor Hollingsworth presents "Air Mattress" and "Snake Hill", and Macey Taylor sings the lead on the Oberst-written "Worldwide".

The point being, Outer South is a long album for a variety of reasons and whilst it doesn't condemn the album per se, it doesn't help things out either. The roots of Outer South's issues lie in that, for most parts, it's just not particularly engagingly written. The project is meant to be a more casual affair for Oberst but here's where his relaxed outlook starts to turn into slacking off: for a man who could quite easily be called an accomplished songwriter with hundreds of songs to back it up, it feels like he's barely making an effort throughout the album either lyrically or melodically, and I'm not sure if "Cabbage Town" or "Ten Women" are truly the flimsiest songs he's ever let on an album but they at least make me consider they are. Only "To All the Lights in the Windows" and "Roosevelt Room" sound close to something with his old fire, while the rest settle into a thoroughly pleasant if slightly bland routine of bouncy southern/folk rock cuts - and there's a lot of them and so that starts to get a bit tiresome.

It's actually - surprisingly - the rest of the group that pulls the bulk of the weight here. Partly that's because the different voices automatically make the songs jump out by default, but there is something a bit fresher to the songs the other guys bring to the mix as if they all felt like they had a point to prove next to Oberst - and just to back that up, Macey Taylor's "Worldwide" is the one song that leaves zero impression out of this lot and it's the one written by Oberst. Freitas' songs capture the looseness and fun vibe of the sessions with the cheeky spaghetti-western-meets-secret-agent drawl "Big Black Nothing" and the buoyantly bright "Bloodline", and Hollingsworth's "Air Mattress" is airheaded as anything but kind of can't help but make you smile while the atmospheric "Snake Hill" is a really effective closer. But the secret star of the show is the band's drummer Boesel. "Eagle on a Pole" (which features the same opening lines as the song with the same name from Conor Oberst but is otherwise wholly different) is probably the best song on the entire album by immediately snagging the listener into its sneaky groove and eventually unleashing a soaring chorus that sticks, while "Difference Is Time" is the kind of feel-good country-twanged sing-along that exemplifies the whole project really well. But just to dampen the positivity a notch, there's also a reason why none of these other guys have ever had a prominent lead career of their own. Their turns on the main mic are like the backing vocalist's chance to step up which then gets tucked away as a b-side or a regional bonus track: they're all technically competent singers they but lack the charisma of a lead vocalist, and though they try their best they never sound like they're driving their own songs. Oberst even on his off-days still has that grip, and next to him everyone else is overshadowed even if their songs are arguably better.

So what you have is just a bit of a gentle mess. An album full of weak-to-fine songs from a songwriter who typically does much better, a selection of slightly better songs from other songwriters who end up underselling them with their performances, and altogether there's just way too many of all of them. Outer South is far from a disaster but it is a slog to get through, and you really have to purposefully focus on the good bits to even remember why they're good as they wash by during a seemingly endless potpourri of passably pleasant songs. It sounds like an album that was an absolute blast for the band to write, play and record, but that feeling doesn't carry over to the listener. It's like a jenga tower that still stands despite the countless holes poked into it, on the verge of a collapse but keeping its balance for now: it's an album that just about stays afloat but has too many distractions and dents to it - and no real glories - for me to ever want to go back to it.

Physically: Jewel case, booklet full of lyrics. "Big Black Nothing" is stylised as a long black bar consistently across the cover art and liner notes, which is fun at least.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2012 7 "One of My Kind", "Breezy", "I Got the Reason #1"

1) One of My Kind; 2) Gentleman's Pact; 3) Corina, Corina; 4) Synesthete Song; 5) Breezy; 6) Central City; 7) I Got the Reason #1; 8) Phil's Song (Learn to Stop Time); 9) Normal; 10) Kodachrome; 11) White Shoes (Reprise)

A selection of outtakes across the Mystic Valley Band years that proves to be stronger than expected.

By 2012 the Mystic Valley Band had already dispersed. The tour for Outer South had finished, the era that had seen the group of men spend so much time together on a daily basis was brought to closure and as the band took a well-deserved break, everyone went back to their main projects. Outer South had been accompanied by a documentary titled "One of My Kind" about the album's origins and recording process, made available to watch for free over the internet. In 2012 Oberst's label/distribution company Team Love finally sought out to release the documentary on DVD, and took this opportunity to bundle the (undoubtedly niche audience) release with a compilation of whatever else remained in the vaults from the lucrative Outer South recording sessions. So, much like you could consider Oberst's 2008 solo album as the informal debut release by The Mystic Valley Band, so too you can consider One of My Kind (the compilation) as the similarly informal final album by them: while it is just a collection of loose ends, the quilt-like nature is similar to how Outer South overall sounded as well so we are basically continuing exactly where we left. It's more casually recorded americana-twanged and classic rock nodding folk and indie from a group of people who unexpectedly struck a chord together and had so much fun playing music together that they wanted to capture the lightning in the bottle while they could.

The first half of One of My Kind for most part isn't technically by the Mystic Valley Band. Oberst had some material left unused from the sessions for his self-titled solo album and those outtakes were packaged as the Gentleman's Pact EP, sold only on the tour dates for the album. One of My Kind brings these back and retcons them into Mystic Valley Band songs though none of the songs feature the full six-piece line-up. You can understand why they were left out of the solo album, because across the whole 2008-2010 set of recordings they sound most like Bright Eyes material. The quiet-loud ebb-and-flow "Gentleman's Pact" itself fits comfortably in the delta between I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Cassadaga where the folk rock threads are out in the open but surfacing together with a more Bright Eyes-esque sense of drama, whereas both "Synesthete Song" and "Breezy" are darker, more melancholy songs that had absolutely no place in the summer holiday postcard vibe of the solo album. "Synesthete Song" is haunting and eery, full of discordant background noise, imposing organ and strikes of feedback, wrapping around the listener's focus to create a powerfully tense atmospheric slow-burner; "Breezy" on the other hand is heartbreaking and deeply mournful as an eulogy and a final goodbye to Oberst's friend and Bright Eyes collaborator Sabrina Duim, and like many of Oberst's most vividly personal ballads it hits deep and powerfully. They are alone worth the price of admission, alongside the album's title track which begins the whole sequence and was recorded as part of the Outer South sessions: "One of My Kind" is a raucous and thrilled rocker of a song with a killer synthesizer riff, and it's by and far the best thing recorded during those sessions to the point that it's actually mad it was left out of the album. The only dip in the otherwise spotless first half is the traditional "Corina, Corina", which Oberst partially rewrites to suit his blossoming love for then-future wife (and later ex-wife) Corina Figueroa Escamilla. Musically it's a tired blues rocker that runs out of novelty in the first minute or so when there's still more to come, and lyrically its syrupy sweetness in hindsight just comes across sad in an awkward way, like watching an old video of now-separated couple spending time together. Perhaps in another time its ad hoc capture-the-moment nature would have come across a little better.

When the compilation crosses over to its second half we get into real Outer South outtake territory, and in this context it means that it's the dumping ground for all the songs that the non-Oberst band members brought in that didn't make the final cut (the sole Oberst-lead song here is the Paul Simon cover "Kodachrome", which is pleasant bonus track fodder). This isn't actually a bad sign per se because those outsider contributions actually brought in some of the more memorable moments on the album. In fact, it's Jason Boesel (the drummer!) who steals the show once again just like he did on the album: his contemplatively mid-tempo, lushly organ-decorated "I Got the Reason #1" (which he'd later re-record for his solo album as well) is one of the undeniable highlights of this selection, and miles better than the rather unmemorable second part that was featured on the record. On the other hand Taylor Hollingsworth's "Central City" is another deep-as-a-puddle bubblegum rocker from him and it's amusing if rather throwaway, while Nik Freitas' "Normal" is inarguably well composed but ultimately unmemorable number - both rightfully cut from the record. The Mystic Valley universe is expanded further with "Phil's Song", written and sung by the group's helping hand and I suppose unofficial seventh member Phil Schaffart - his contribution is the most straight-up country that the project has ever come close to and while it's a simple, unassuming song there's something rather charming and warm to it. It doesn't make it a masterpiece by any means, but it is... cosy, and does highlight how the band seems to be more just about comrades enjoying playing and recording music together under the sun rather than perhaps deep artistic aspirations.

The thing is, despite its flaws, despite its lopsided nature of clearly separate two halves awkwardly put together and despite the basic fact that is a collection of discards to begin with... One of My Kind still somehow comes together better than Outer South. Partly it might be because it's a more manageable length; it might also partly be on account of third of it being direct solo material from Oberst written in a different mindset. But the overall conclusion is that it simply holds up as a good listening experience, warts and all. The whole Mystic Valley Band years were hit and miss to begin with and in comparison to all of Oberst's other projects, they are the least of them all thanks to their haphazard nature. But when things click even partly right with them, there's a breeziness and friendliness to their relaxed rocking that you don't really find anywhere else in Oberst's back catalogue - and I think the second half of this selection radiates that more distinctly than the parent album, even if not all the songs are better than those on the record. The first half on the other hand boasts not only the best song of the era but also a number of really good Oberst solo cuts in disguise which originally made for another distinct, interesting EP worth discovering from an artist who at one point made those a habit. One of My Kind doesn't come together smoothly at all but where it does something right, it helps brush up the bits that don't land as well. It is, given my slight ambivalence towards these years, a surprisingly good listen that doesn't take too much effort to get you hooked if in the right mood.

A brief word on the documentary too, which is only an hour long and also still available online as well. Much like the music of the period it depicts, it's a relatively casual fly-on-the-wall behind-the-scenes documentary about the formation of the group during Oberst's solo album sessions and the subsequent recording sessions for Outer South, with no greater narrative other than just to depict what happened and to give the viewer an idea of how it all played out. There's no earth-shattering revelations that would make you re-assert how you hear the albums, but it does give a lot of time to the non-Oberst members of the band (except Walcott, who only appears a few times and doesn't seem to be too keen about being interviewed) so you get to know them better and how their personality and skills feed into the overall music. The biggest takeaway I had from the documentary is the feeling that towards the end of the period everyone was starting to get really exhausted: what started out as a group of people enjoying their time together so much that they wanted to extend it (and also Walcott was there, seemingly dragged by Oberst), eventually seems to have ended in the classic tale of friends discovering that when you practically live together with someone for such a long period of time, you realise where the differences lie. So it seems about right that the Mystic Valley Band went on a break at the point they did instead of continuing on.

Physically: Gatefold, with a booklet packed together with the CD side featuring all the lyrics and credits, very plainly laid out.


Years active: Genres:
2001 - 2016 Indie rock, midwest emo, punk rock

A band formed in 2001, intended to act as a way for Oberst to be louder and more political outside the established sound of Bright Eyes before the growing popularity of his main gig took all his time and so Desaparecidos never got a real chance to establish itself as anything beyond a footnote of a side project. Line-up: Conor Oberst (vocals, guitar), Matt Baum (drums), Landon Hedges (bass, vocals), Ian McElroy (keyboards), Denver Valley (guitar).


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2002 7 "Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)", "Greater Omaha", "Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods)"

1) Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning); 2) Mañana; 3) Greater Omaha; 4) Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods); 5) Mall of America; 6) The Happiest Place on Earth; 7) Survival of the Fittest/It's a Jungle Out There; 8) $$$$; 9) Hole in One

Who'd have thought Oberst sounded so good fronting an angry political rock group?

The whole Desaparecidos project was seemingly cursed from birth. They were intended to be an actual band with a defined line-up, existing side-by-side with Oberst's then-primarily-solo Bright Eyes as a vehicle for more muscular and angrier music that he felt would have not suited his "main" project. Bright Eyes ultimately took off a lot more than anticipated, forcing a shift in Oberst's priorities and putting Desaparecidos on ice - but in one of indie rock's big what-if scenarios, would that have been the case if Desaparecidos had been able to release their album in late 2001 as originally intended? The 9/11 attacks happened literally during the week that the band originally got together recorded their debut album and in the aftermath, releasing a record thematically devoted to criticising the American lifestyle and political system wasn't considered particularly appropriate. Thus, the finished album was pushed back to early 2002 and the release of Lifted a few months immediately afterwards all but buried Read Music/Speak Spanish altogether, and Oberst would later go on to incorporate the themes and sounds under the Bright Eyes umbrella in the future, effectively burying the band for good (or so it was thought, before the sudden reunion). In another world, this could have been a good start for something completely different.

Read Music/Speak Spanish tends to often get characterised as Oberst's punk album and while both the music and lyrics are adjacent to punk traditions, that moniker doesn't seem quite right. For one, the writing is still very distinguishably Oberstian and melodically not a million miles away from Bright Eyes; similarly the compositions themselves are closer to a midwest emo album that's going through a very angry phase, with crunchier guitars, than actual go-hard punk. Oberst's words are less nuanced this time around and he isn't offering any kind of unique insight on topics such as mass consumerism or the hollowness of white collar life in corporate America here (though he does also take a few potshots at himself to highlight he's not some morally pure preacher either), but the fury and fire of the music make great bedfellows with the direct lyricism in a pump-your-fist-in-the-air kind of way. The other thing is that out of the many side projects in Oberst's archives, Desaparecidos above all sound like a dynamic, cohesive unit who share a mission rather than act as recruited stage hands anonymously hanging behind Oberst. Much of the strength of the music comes from the rest of the band, with Matt Baum's drums and Denver Valley's riffs in particular acting as sizeable contributors to the sheer power that Read Music/Speak Spanish plows through its compact length with, while Ian McElroy's keyboards lay out textures that cut through to accentuate the songs with atmospheric touches. Oberst obviously has the biggest visibility here, he's the one screaming (literally) loudly about the hell of corporate brands after all, but you can hear that the band behind him is a collaborative unit and the album does draw a good portion of its strengths through that.

Given the above, I'd love it if Read Music/Speak Spanish was a semi-hidden classic but whilst it sounds great and it's fiercely engaging, despite its perky half hour length it still manages to run out of steam a little towards its end - or to put it differently, it's an incredibly front-loaded album. The "Man and Wife" duology is the album's central pillar which combines Oberst's gift for fleshed-out introspective narratives, the familiar emotional resonance of midwest emo and Desaparecidos' own brand of punches and politics all together into a set of songs that perfectly summarise the album's strengths, "Greater Omaha" is a punk rock song filtered through the ambition of a stadium anthem and is the album's definitive singular moment above anything else, and "Mañana" and "Mall of America" burst through guns blazing highlighting the sheer force and volume that this group of musicians can put together. It's a breathlessly great barrage that immediately converts the listener on Desaparecidos' side, but following the first half the album runs out of new things to say and the remaining four songs - while all still good - primarily repeat what came before without anything of their own to add to it, while wielding less memorable melodies and less impressive bulldozer power. Thanks to the inherent positives courtesy of the talent in the band's line-up it's not a genuine disappoinment, but it does mean that the album ends with something closer to a fizzle rather than the bang that this firecracker deserves. The parts I remember most vividly from not just this album but also from Desaparecidos as a whole come directly from the first five songs, and there's a part of me that always feels like it's discovering the last run of songs for the first time whenever I listen to the album because they just don't have the same degree of sticking power that the first impressions hold.

Still, I don't want to lay down too much criticism on an album that's generally a lot of good fun and quite often really great in music and performance. Despite the stylistic range Oberst has displayed throughout his career, Desaparecidos is still the loudest and meanest he's ever been and it's a genuine delight just how brilliantly his voice and charisma work in a more all-out rock context like this, and you could easily see him having a successful career in this kind of direction as well had things played out differently between his band plans in early 2000s. It's also kind of tragic just how relevant Read Music/Speak Spanish still comes across today in its criticisms and comments, but perversely that's also kept it fresh and resonant - if anything, thanks to the side effects of globalisation the topics now feel less American and more universal (hooray?). Even with its minor downsides (which are really just comparative rather than actual flaws) there's still a gem hidden in the rough, and at its best it's on par with any of Oberst's accolades in Bright Eyes. It's a wholly different side to a familiar voice, and that makes it recommendable in itself.

Physically: Of particular note here is the booklet: the buildings on the cover image are actually oa partly transparent plastic layer, so the very first page you see as you open the booklet is the wide open countryside without civilisation on top of it. The booklet takes the form of a planning and development contract, with lyrics laid out in paragraphs in-between highly formal and corporate estate planning agreement jargon. All stored in a white-spined jewel case.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2015 7 "City on the Hill", "Radicalized", "Te Amo Camila Vallejo"

1) The Left Is Right; 2) The Underground Man; 3) City on the Hill; 4) Golden Parachutes; 5) Radicalized; 6) MariKKKopa; 7) Te Amo Camila Vallejo; 8) Ralphy's Cut; 9) Backsell; 10) Slacktivist; 11) Search the Searches; 12) 10 Steps Behind; 13) Von Maur Massacre; 14) Anonymous

They're back and gone full-on brutish protest punk - and despite some sameyness it sounds excellent.

Desaparecidos' reunion started with a one-off gig at the Concert for Equality benefit show in 2010, protesting against a recent local ban on undocumented immigrants being able to reside or work in the area. That's a fitting way for the band's second wave to have begun. Desaparecidos' debut was a politically-oriented midwest emo album disguised as a punk album - Payola on the other hand is clearly and overtly political as well as decidedly more punk. Oberst and his band mates protest about everything and everyone in power that's in their way, with the tracklist looking like a short list of every ire and blight that had reared its head in the US in the early 2010s, and they do it with mean riffs and gung-ho speed. It shows less finesse than the debut despite all the years in-between and it couldn't be more prouder of it; you could even say this is more in line with Desaparecidos' intended spirit than Read Music/Speak Spanish was.

So the songs are shorter and more to the point, aurally assaulting from the get-go without lengthy intros and funnelling their melodies right onto massive fist-in-air shout-along choruses full of catchy slogans. Oberst's lyrics are also the most blunt and straightforward they've ever been: there's no time for vivid prose when you've got protest songs to scream and targets to aim for. The beefed-up production gives the songs the muscle to crash through walls and all around, it's an album that aims to deliver its message with the force and subtlety of a brick through the window. It also works really well. In particular Payola manages to hit that rare sweet spot where even though the music is undeniably angry and fueled by righteous fire, it's still actually really fun too: it makes running for the barricades sound like the most exhilirating activity you could do and frequently bursts a smile on my face, even if that might not have been the intended effect. Oberst, despite his older years, is also full of youthful vitriol and defiance in his frontman performance: his screaming and spitting sounds better than it ever has in either the first Desaparecidos album or ever on Bright Eyes, refusing to age gracefully and sounding fiercer than ever.

With that impassioned performance and the sharply written songs, Payola not only has a more distinct personality of its own beyond this just being another Oberst side project but it's also at times an all-around improvement on the (still good) debut. Read Music/Speak Spanish is closer to the all-around Bright Eyes vibe, but the hit-and-run hooks of Payola are a real exciting rush. "The Left Is Right", "Radicalized", "City on the Hill", "Te Amo Camila Vallejo", "Anonymous"... they all boil down to a pounding high-speed rhythm section under churning guitar riffs and accentuating keyboard stabs (Desaparecidos as a whole are a super solid band but Ian McElroy's keyboard parts are their secret ace in the sleeve), which escalat into immediately latching choruses cracking through the speakers with such energy and force. The directness of the lyrics can sometimes veer into a little Captain Obvious territory and some are in hindsight slightly awkward time capsules of 2015 (the Occupy Movement, the Anonymous, etc), but it all works in tune to the sentiment of the music and, well, it's punk after all and we're not here for finely nuanced debates. What begins to dampen the party is that it's fourteen songs of the exact same vibe, tone and even tempo and structure. Payola isn't a long record at only 40 minutes, but it feels so much longer simply because at one point or another the songs will inevitably begin to blend into one another because they're all largely the exact same thing. Because everything is so chorus-focused as well and the verses and what few bridges and breakdowns exist sometimes feel like afterthoughts in comparison, the songs ultimately live and die by those climactic refrains - where they're not as strong as they are in some other songs, it ends up bringing the song itself down in comparison. There are entire patches of this album that fail to leave a recollection even though they're ultimately rather enjoyable on the album itself, simply because other songs on the record do literally the same thing but better.

And... in all honesty, you could copy/paste my final paragraph from the review of the debut album here and it would fit perfectly. Desaparecidos sound like a band instead of just an Oberst vanity project (even if he's still front and centre as the frontman) and they perform brilliantly and with charisma, the messages for the most part still feel (tragically) valid if you're a damn dirty liberal like me and if you're mapping the journey of Oberst alone, these two albums showcase a widely different side to him than anything else he's done. Both albums also feel like they fall just short of truly great even though the potential is there. Payola in particular at times can be some of the most giddily wild set of songs Oberst has ever landed himself in the middle of, but once you're past the honeymoon period you realise the gap between the highs and the relative lows is very distinct. It's - once again - something for the group to build on in time for the next round, but that's doubtful to ever come - Oberst has not only brought Bright Eyes back since but the curse that seems to loom over Desaparecidos struck again: the tour behind the album was cut short when Oberst developed a cyst in his brain which (understandably) halted the entire affair, and after two awkwardly fated albums with troubled launches I wouldn't be surprised if he keeps a lid on the project just to avoid any more bad luck. But one album of full-on punk rock Oberst is still a worthwhile addition into his wider discography and even though it loses its accuracy from time to time, there's so many hits that meet the target that the overall experience is enjoyably rowdy.

Physically: Jewel case, lyrics plainly in the booklet. The back cover is neat at least, with the song titles coming out of clear sections from a mostly blacked-out classified document (in style of the front cover, sadly it doesn't extend to the booklet).

Monsters of Folk

Years active: Genres:
2004 - 2010 Folk, Folk Rock, Americana

A broadly folk-minded supergroup consisting of Oberst and Mogis from Bright Eyes, Jim James from My Morning Jacket and the singer/songwriter M. Ward (both who should be familiar names from Bright Eyes albums). The group was formed in the mid-2000s when all the members founded themselves touring together constantly, but didn't find the time to sit down and record an album until Oberst's late-00s break from Bright Eyes.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2009 7 "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)", "Whole Lotta Losin'", "Ahead of the Curve"

1) Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.); 2) Say Please; 3) Whole Lotta Losin'; 4) Temazcal; 5) The Right Place; 6) Baby Boomer; 7) Man Named Truth; 8) Goodway; 9) Ahead of the Curve; 10) Slow Down Jo; 11) Losin Yo Head; 12) Magic Marker; 13) Map of the World; 14) The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me; 15) His Master's Voice

Talented musicians playing breezy folk-rock singalongs together is actually quite enjoyable, simple as it is.

I apologise for the behind-the-scenes commentary, but I'm writing this review while doing a wider chronological revisit (and re-assessment) of Conor Oberst's back catalogue, and in that running order Monsters of Folk comes immediately (roughly four months, in fact) after Outer South. I didn't actually buy either of these albums at the time of release, so the similarities really came to surface during the process: both are lengthy, casually-minded and folk/americana-inspired collaborative efforts with multiple songwriters stepping in to contribute. The albums have otherwise nothing to do with each other and the comparisons will end after this meta-anecdotal opening, but it's been very interesting to align these back-to-back in my mind of how differently both albums turned out. Outer South is bloated, relaxed to the point it sounds slacking and its non-Oberst spots, though they are among the album's highlights, come across awkwardly like they've been let in out of leniency. Meanwhile Monsters of Folk acts and sounds a proper collaboration of like-minded songwriters letting their hair down by performing songs with one another in a less pressured enviroment, resolving my complaints about Outer South almost point by point.

It makes sense that there's a more natural chemistry found between the titular Monsters of Folk (still such a beautifully ostentatious name): Oberst, Mogis, James and Ward have all been friends and brothers-in-arms for years, frequently touring together or guest featuring in each other's records in one combination or another. All of the three leading men (Mogis retains his usual role as the non-speaking multi-instrumentalist and producer of the group) are wildly different singers and songwriters: James' high falsetto comes with an abundance of earnesty and classic rock hooks, Ward's low gruff retains a sense of mystery which pairs up neatly with his slowburning songs with eccentric lyrical twists, and Oberst's voice finds a middle ground between the two while exalting in a more directly personal strain of songwriting that marries introspection with a keen sense of melody. However, you can hear all that shared experience between one another when these these completely distinct artistic voices come together. Each of the three has brought up five songs to the album and it's very clear who wrote what given the idiosyncratic differences between the writing styles (right down to the way the words lay out on the lyric pages) but they share and trade lead and backing vocals with each other in nearly each track and that's where one of the main strengths of this group lies in. The three different ranges complement each other perfectly and the Monsters have the know-how to layer and arrange these vocals in a manner that unlocks new depths in the songs and their melodies. This album isn't a master class of harmonising or anything to that effect, but the people behind it know where the unique strengths of each voice work the best; this is perhaps best exemplified by how I've never really clicked with M. Ward's voice until this album, where he really stands to his own despite how his deep whispery murmur could easily drown under the two bolder (and louder) voices. The result is a palpable feeling of the group in the studio together, collaborating on an instinctual level with no ego or levels of importance between any of them as they figure out how they sound best together. This is a supergroup by definition (if a group of mid-to-mid-high indie names can be called 'super'), but where a lot of supergroups end up highlighting the individual star power of their line-up, Monsters of Folk sound a tight, well-established unit. That's a good starting point.

The other key thing to note is that there's more the stylistic range of the album than the label says. The "folk" bit in the title is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek stretch: though you could in good conscience consider the album's heart to lie around traditionally American singer/songwriter flair where guitars, mandolins and banjos accompany straightforward sing-along songs of joy and sadness, there isn't a strict "Monsters of Folk sound". The quartet's overarching goal here is to focus on simple songs that pull you in from the start, rather than reach for more elaborate or decorated soundscapes, and they all interpret that starting premise in different ways. Some tigers in particular can't change their stripes as easily and specifically James and Oberst directly bring over their day jobs to this group from time to time. "Temazcal", "Map of the World" and especially the confidently ascending "Ahead of the Curve" are pure Bright Eyes, whereas "Losin Yo Head" has all the bearings of a My Morning Jacket song and the psychedelic and spiritual (there's a lot of religion throughout these songs but these are particularly Jim James -esque in how the topic is discussed) "Dear God" and "His Master's Voice" sound like precursors to James' future solo works. I'm not as familiar with M. Ward's solo work to contrast and compare, but safe to say if you're already a fan of anyone involved in this group, chances are there's something to enjoy here on that basis alone. Broadly speaking the album veers from right-on rock-outs ("Say Please", "Losin Yo Head", "Whole Lotta Losin'") to nods to old folk songs of yore ("Man Named Truth", "Baby Boomer") and the energy can go from ripping to resting and the tone from sincerely contemplative to just plain silly. "Dear God" with its sample and loop based backing track is as out there as it goes and it's a real stylistic red herring to open the album with, but it does set the scene well by giving each member a spotlight as it slowly unfolds in all its lovely dreaminess and throws a curveball right off the track to anyone who expected this to be just a folk album based on the title alone. The combining element across everything is a freewheeling sense of anything-goes, and it all ends up holding together because of the charisma of the performers and the relatively small dud count in the song list. Even in the album's weakest points there's still something enjoyable to find in each song through the vocal performances alone, even when the writing is flimsier (mainly pointing in the direction of "Baby Boomer" and "Goodway" here, sorry Ward) and the fifteen-song potpourri never becomes a slog.

In fact, if anything, Monsters of Folk is a breezy and inviting listen throughout its length. The stakes have been intentionally lowered here, but it results in a set of songs that are easy to enjoy and to casually pop on. None of the members have saved any of their biggest bangers for this project (though I would urge every Oberst fan at least to check out "Ahead of the Curve", which is a minor tweak away from an exemplary Bright Eyes cut), but at no point does it also feel like anyone's half-arsing their time and the material is thoroughly good for the majority of the duration. The big X-factor it has is the straightforward charm of listening a group of talented people working with each other; being a fly on the wall facing a small group of friends who have set time to enjoy each other's company and play some songs. A lot of Oberst's late 2000s were centered around an apparent urge to escape the increasing scale and responsibilities with Bright Eyes and the handful of albums released in a short span of time during this period are an extended vacation of sorts - Monsters of Folk possibly comes closest to achieving that state of just letting go and having fun, while still producing an album that has something worth bringing up among the outside audiences as well. Turns out, a group of talented musicians and charismatic personalities having fun playing jaunty folk-rock ditties - and sounding really good when singing together - turns out to make for a thoroughly enjoyable album.

Physically: Gatefold, with a thick lyrics booklet giving each song its own page. My copy of this is a bit worn-out: it was a second-hand copy which had some invisible tape stuck on the back, when I noticed and tried to pull it off, it ended up ripping off some of the paper/cardboard cover. I've done a quick fix-up job with some glue and it's not too obvious. Battle scars...

Better Oblivion Community Center

Years active: Genres:
2018 - 2020 Indie rock

A shortly-lived collaboration between Oberst and singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, arising out of a shared admiration for each other's music and idle moments on a tour where Bridgers opened for Oberst. Quickly recorded one album (and one download single), did a tour and the two then headed off their separate ways towards the next chapters in their own main projects. The two have remained amicable friends but there's all kinds of additional personal relationship complexities (too much hearsay and rumours for me to really detail here, but it's out there in various subreddits for the curious) that may or may not mean there will be another Better Oblivion Community Center album - but one can hope, certainly.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2019 8 "Sleepwalkin'", "Dylan Thomas", "Exception to the Rule"

1) Didn't Know What I Was in For; 2) Sleepwalkin'; 3) Dylan Thomas; 4) Service Road; 5) Exception to the Rule; 6) Chesapeake; 7) My City; 8) Forest Lawn; 9) Big Black Heart; 10) Dominos

A genre icon and a new rising star collaborate in a manner that highlights how simply exciting some good ol' modern indie rock can be.

Oberst's collaboration projects typically start out as impromptu suggestions about working together he makes with his close friends one random day, which only end up bearing fruit several years after the matter when suddenly fate leads them back together the exact moment everyone's schedules are clear for once. In comparison, Better Oblivion Community Center is like a genuine attempt at capturing a lightning in the bottle the very moment that it strikes. Bridgers is a life-long Bright Eyes fan who, through unexpected connections, ended up getting a slot at a last minute one-night-only event that Oberst was coordinating; Oberst, who hadn't heard of the then-rising star before, became a fan immediately after her set and subsequently invited her to open for him on his next tour. The two hit off so well that the idea of writing just a random song together to mark the tour suddenly became several songs and eventually enough to make an album, which they recorded briskly before either part of the duo would get busy with their next records. That spontaneity may well be the secret key to the success of the self-titled album: it comes to life quickly and with a real breath of fresh air, full of unexpected giddiness in its heart that guides the sorry songs.

Because Better Oblivion Community Center wasn't really a formally planned project with a defined sound from the get go, it naturally gravitates to the middle of where Bridgers and Oberst's paths cross - though with a little twist. Bridgers, coming fresh off Stranger in the Alps, has her immediately identifiable touch throughout the album, so much so that "Chesapeake" and "Didn't Know What I Was in For" in particular would slot perfectly in her own records. Sometimes it even feels like Oberst hides behind her to some extent as she gets the majority of the big vocal moments and generally often comes across more like the lead than Oberst does. His influence is all over Better Oblivion Community Center in other ways, and in unexpected ways too. After nearly a decade of comradery solo works and casual collaborations, this album comes closest to that old Bright Eyes feeling than Oberst has in years, with the album's surging indie rock sense of flair and drama coming across strongly reminiscent of where The People's Key left his signature band. In a pre-Bright Eyes reunion world when this came out, the big grab here for me was in fact that it felt like a weird roundabout return of Bright Eyes, potentially indirectly boosted by Bridgers' influence in dragging that old feel out of Oberst. Now that Bright Eyes are once again back (to some degree), well, that same feeling is still there but the emphasis is on how excited Oberst seems to be when going back to this vibe. Amidst all the bits of sad indie balladeering and dashes of detailed studio-based arrangements, the main driving point of Better Oblivion Community Center comes from its heaps of excited, energetic rock swoons coming from a pair of musicians who are clearly inspired by one another, trading vibes and melodies and striking upon something that lights them up.

And... really the strength of the album lies in something just as simple as that, so much that it's almost boring to point it out. Both Bridgers and Oberst are great songwriters and this albums bears the simple pleasure of hearing those minds working together in a completely natural fashion, their shared sentiments and different approaches overlapping with such ease that for all the bluster and rush that Better Oblivion Community Center so often displays (the soaring choruses of "Sleepwalkin'" and the screaming crescendo to "Big Black Heart", for example), the combination is so seamless that you could almost call the album chilled out in tone, if not in mood. Nothing shows this better than the brilliant standout single "Dylan Thomas", a song so effortlessly smooth and natural in its execution that it's downright obvious and all the giddier for it: Oberst and Bridgers' dual vocals (decidedly not a duet vocal here) rise and soar above one of the most pitch-perfectly executed indie rock anthems of the 2010s, the whole track on a constant acceleration to take off and glide on its wings. "Dylan Thomas" is the best song on the album and it might also be the best representation of the whole ad hoc snapshot of a moment ethos behind Better Oblivion Community Center (reportedly it was the last song written for the album, appearing in a blink of inspiration at the last minute), capturing the hair-down-loose vibe of the collaboration perfectly. Both "Exception to the Rule" and the Mystic Valley Band cohort Taylor Hollingsworth cover "Dominos" are dense and busy with their hyper-kinetic kitchen sink production (the former coming close to Digital Ash in a Digital Urn), but they bounce around with such abandon it's hard not to smile - in particular the latter's run of line-punctuating sound effects hasn't stopped being positively thrillling in all these years (they're in the original too, but the hi-fi approach of this version really brings them to life). The ten songs all breeze by in roughly three and half minutes on average, and the album as a result makes for a brief and unassuming listen - and also one that's really easy to just quickly come back to at a moment's notice. Both Bridgers and Oberst are professional miserablists but Better Oblivion Community Center exemplifies that paradox of artists enjoying making music so much that even melancholia becomes fun, in a way.

The album doesn't quite escape the Oberst curse of all his collaborative efforts coming just short of truly essential, and just as much the ad hoc nature of the record powers it so refreshingly it also likely ensures that many of the biggest classics the duo had in their personal pockets got saved for their respective next albums. But it is, without a doubt, closes Oberst has ever come to that and still showcases him in a differently jubilated light; meanwhile from the perspective of a Bridgers-tilted lens, she very rarely indulges in her own music in the kind of explosively surging choruses and energy that are so thoroughly present here, and it's so great to hear her voice in that environment that I wish she did more of it. Better Oblivion Community Center is such an exciting album that it makes you want to hear a sequel, though one is unlikely to ever come - there's simply so much musical chemistry in the duo's work together that ten quick songs (and a couple of random non-album cuts) doesn't feel enough. It doesn't invent anything new or even re-invent the wheel, but it simply shines in its execution.

Physically: Tri-panel gatefold, with a simple lyrics booklet. The disc sleeve is particularly loose with this one, it always almost falls out when I handle the case.

There is no beginning to the story...