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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Total Eclipse Of The Heart

As some of you may know, Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes released two new albums this week. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is a straight-forward singer/songwriter/folk album, which is said to be more sparse than his previous releases. The other is Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, an electronic indie album similar to the likes of The Postal Service's Give Up (DNTEL/The Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello produces a few tracks on the album). The reviews for these two albums have been nearly unanimous in declaring them as modern music gems. This from's review of the albums:

This record was made to be loved, to be obsessed over by some but remembered by everybody, to get scratched and worn out through constant rotation in a sorority living room or your first studio apartment or your mom's old radio, to capture Conor Oberst for the first time with more polish than spit, but still getting him deeply under your skin.

Here's the thing: I hate Bright Eyes, and I hate Conor Oberst1. I hate it when Rolling Stone compares him to Bob Dylan, I hate it when people declare him a genius, and I hated his show at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2003.2 I also hated seeing him at The Shins show later that evening at Antone's, where he was wrapped up in his hoodie and thrift-store polo, appearing not unlike an eleven-year-old boy who had been threatened with a good beating by the school bully.

That being said, my utter elation to Stephen Thomas Erlewine's review shouldn't be a surprise.

Stripped of the careening, dramatic, meandering arrangements of Lifted, Oberst's music seems not simpler, but simplistic, the plodding music acting as a bed for monochromatic melodies that merely serve as a delivery mechanism for all those words he's poured out on the page. Far from being the second coming of Dylan, Oberst is as precious as Paul Simon, but without any sense of rhyme or meter or gift for imagery, puking out lines filled with cheap metaphors and clumsy words that don't scan. Supporters excuse this as soul-searching, but the heavy-handed pretension in the words and the affectedness in his delivery -- not to mention the quavering bleat that's halfway between Feargal Sharkey and the Dead Milkmen's Rodney Anonymous -- give the whole enterprise a sense of phoniness that's only enhanced by its unadorned production. When Oberst was swallowed in the deliberate grandeur of Lifted, his drama queen theatrics fit the music, but here, they expose him for the shallow poseur he is.

Erlewine, I should mention, is a critic with judgement that is as close to flawless as you can get. He's written thousands of reviews and biographies for Allmusic since its inception in 1993, and issues a fair and reasonable account of each band or album critiqued. I've never seen him pick favorites, I've never seen him exhibit prejudices, and he's shown himself to be a veritable walking encyclopedia of musical knowledge.

But on this review...

Erlewine sits down at his desk at Allmusic headquarters. He picks up Rolling Stone's new issue, and after finishing the cover article, grunts disapprovingly. After getting up for a cup of coffee and making smalltalk with Heather Phares, he then sits down at his computer and opens his bookmarked pages under the folder "Other Review Sites." He reads Pitchfork's review of the new dual-release. He skims over Neumu's . He scoffs and rolls his eyes. What is wrong with these people? In order to get away from the madness of his colleagues, he takes a stroll to a cafe for lunch. He sits down in the booth closest to the door and orders a turkey sandwich with no mayonnaise. There is a young couple sitting in the booth next to him. He overhears their conversation:

"I can't wait until the new Bright Eyes albums come out. Conor Oberst is truly a Dylan-esque genius on whose landscape the future of pop music will surely be forged," says the nose ring-clad co-ed with the Smiths t-shirt on.

"I really agree with you on this one, Sandy," says her faux-hawked companion. He pauses to straighten his ironically worn-necktie which he pairs with tight jeans and Converse All-Stars. "Oberst's honest emotion and bittersweet melodies surely put him into the same category as Springsteen and REM. Frankly, I think he is poised to outshine both of them with his forthcoming new releases."

Erlewine begins to sweat. His breath quickens. His nostrils flare. He wants to punch something, but who? and where to punch them? He leaps out of the booth, ready to display the kind of rage that only a man driven insane by the absurd rhetoric of know-nothing schleps can posess. But suddenly, something in him changes. Using the same impeccable judgment he uses in his music criticism, he thinks better of the decision, runs his hands through his hair, and he calms, his head hanging. After a brief pause, Tom (as his friends call him) looks up and gazes off at the horizon. He takes a deep breath, and rolls up his sleeves.

"It's time to take out the trash."

And that's how one of the best damn album reviews I've ever read was written.

God bless this man. God bless him for saying everything that Newsweek and Rolling Stone wouldn't say, for saying everything that Pitchfork Media was too cool to admit, and saying it clearly and with enough evidence that even the biggest Oberst fans (if they have an ounce of musical sense in their heads) have to think past their defensiveness and say defeatedly, "Yeah, that part is true." While I'm at it, God bless America.

1 I have not heard either one of these albums. I have, however, heard much of Oberst's other work, including Desaparacidos albums and most of the other Bright Eyes material. These experiences, his live performance, and STE's review are what I'm using as basis for declaring these two new albums to be dog doo as well. Just so you know.

2 During this show, Oberst was drunk, forgot words to his songs, and generally didn't seem to have a good understanding about his surroundings. After it was over, my sister asked me what I thought of the show.

"I hate Colin Oberst," I said.

"It's Conor," she said. "And some people would be really upset with you for not remembering his name."

"Who the fuck cares? He sucks!"