A Decade With Conor Oberst

A Note From Leila:  I wrote this a few years ago for my brother's music blog, in 2016 I think, but feel like its worth sharing for any Conor Oberst fan, or really just any music fan. I am currently working up on a follow up essay type thing to it (because of my absurd amount of excitement for this new Bright Eyes album coming out!!). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PART ONE

We must memorize nine numbers and deny we have soul
And into the caverns of tomorrow
With just our flashlights and our love
We must  plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge

     It was the third week of December, my freshman year of high school. Amanda and I had adopted the tradition of going last minute Christmas shopping together. Tackling the taxing task of a suburban mall a few days shy of the holiday seemed far more bearable if we were in good company. We would buy each other’s gifts on these outings--a flawless plan resulting in never being disappointed in the present we received from our best friend for Christmas each year.
     It was probably the last year where we'd even be able to buy gifts for each other (or anyone for that matter) at FYE, so we both, somewhat somberly, took advantage of the closing sale. As her aunt endured the endless stream of standstill headlights to rescue us from the consumer labyrinth, I tore the plastic off of my gift, admiring the hand drawn depiction. Brownstones suffocating under a brilliant rusty orange sun indicative of day break; the undeniable Manhattan skyline distanced in the backdrop. The artwork on the cover of what would become one of the most influential albums of my emotional evolution: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the fourth official Bright Eyes album. With the packaging already removed, it only made sense to listen to it on our way home. 
     “Wow,” her aunt commented from the driver’s seat.
     “We must memorize nine numbers and deny we have a soul. Do you know what he’s talking about?”
     We, of course, both literally did, but-at the same time-we really had no idea.

     The following Christmas, my brother handed me a gift and I unwrapped a vinyl edition of I’m Wide Awake, the inauguratory record of my eventual vast collection.     

     The first Bright Eyes song I ever heard was ”It’s Cool, We Can Still Be Friends.” It’s an uncomfortable track about handling a breakup by drinking to oblivion, because it feels better to forget than to cope. I was 12 at the time and I resisted, unsettled by the jarring feeling it had allowed to wash over me. Little did I know that within the passing of a few seasons, a transition from middle school to high school, Conor Oberst would be a defining figure of my adolescence. 
     The official mark of obsession was my freshman year, brought on by track five of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, “Gold Mine Gutted.” It was the song on my Myspace page, with the header by my photo reading its opening line, “It was grass stained jeans and incompletes.” 
     It would be years until I realized the song was about a couple who enabled one another’s drug use and one had to leave the other before they destroyed their lives through the combined power of recklessness. Somehow, though-in my youthful innocence and naivety-it moved me. Simulating the feeling of late summer evenings kissed with faint breezes of autumn transitioning into the sepia washed light brought on by the grey skies and dying vegetation of a new season.

     It was sometime early in my second year of college the feeling would manifest into my reality: my first real break-up. The expiration date on our fleeting, fiery love arrived swiftly; equipped with a commercial extinguisher (despite how reluctant we were to let the good times slip away). Brute force to ensure no straggling embers remained, smothered in totality for the eventual greater good of our respective futures. New beginnings seeming as foreign as the day when designer did not necessarily mean quality; a simulated version of nature completely composed of fractals.

     Freshman year of high school is dreadful no matter your circumstances. Thankfully, though, my freshman year has the fondest memories of delving deep into the catalogue of Bright Eyes albums released up until that point. It was luckily the same year that a new album was in the works and a tour was in order, which meant one remarkable thing: Bright Eyes will forever be my first concert ever. The excitement of sitting passenger in Grace’s Toyota Echo on the way to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is one that can only be captured by the melody of a song that makes you nostalgic for an experience you never actually had.
     He opened with “False Advertising” and with the second “on a string…” I might have been the first person in the theatre to stand. Dapperly dressed in an all white suit, blasphemously mocking the symbolism of the color (or possibly believing his spiritual awakening in Cassadaga rid him of all prior sins) compensated for the inevitable breaks between songs to sip on the red solo cup he brought on stage. The encore closed with “Road to Joy,” along with the (quite drunkenly) smashing of his keyboard against the stage as the lights went out, because if Conor Oberst is known in the small crowd of his cult followers for anything, it’s the unintended mic drop ending.
     My fascination with his music remained relentless.
     I’ve seen him live a handful of times since then, and every album he has released over the years has been either an immediate favorite or has seriously grown on me.
 
     Some people grew up with The Beatles or the Dead--and trust I am envious of thee; others grew up with Kiss or Metallica, and I have far less jealousy of that latter group. I find it an honor to have grown up with Conor Oberst. I understood him at what feels like, now, way too young of an age; however, I have always been a troubled over-thinker and a sucker for the combination of poetic and raw diction.
     Often times though, the artist you find yourself immersed in a one point of your life slips away from you. Each passing album feels a little further from you than the last. You liked their old stuff better, you tell your friends. The new album is the watered down whiskey ginger on the rocks you camped on for too long. You miss the days of ordering it neat when you could feel the burn trickle down the core of your insides.
    Maybe it’s his voice or the found sounds on many of his recorded tracks; maybe it’s his short story introductions and fictional interview conclusions. Maybe it’s the difficulty of feeling comfortable with yourself in order to approach the raw honesty of his lyrics, but Conor Oberst remained an artist’s artist. He’s let his music evolve with him, exploring his solo career with different bands in different places. Although he has strayed from the origins that built his cult following, he never abandoned his roots--only solidified them.

PART TWO

It’s not the town, we used to know
they tore some buildings down 

     These are the first lines of “Tourist Trap,” a track off of Cassadaga’s predecessor Four Winds EP.
     When I was 21, I found myself back in the bedroom of my parent’s hobbit house in the suburb of a suburb of Tampa. The walls I once painted siren red as an unintentional symbol for the monitored pandemonium of my youth were now sterile white: barren, unfamiliar. The eclectic, yet welcoming energy of the space I had spent years fostering had long disappeared in my absence, and here I was to return to it and reform the path for the next phase of my life there. It felt uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and-worst of all-stagnant. Nothing new could be born there. It was a space I could only use to formulate an escape plan based on the tendency of arrogant impulse I hoped to abandon after one final good use of the bad habit. 

And the road finally gave me back
But I don’t think I’ll unpack
Because I’m not sure if I live here anymore

 PART THREE

Bid farewell to her family with one ecstatic wave
Out the window as the car rolled away
She just vanished
Into a thick mist of change

     It was late May or early June, and the heat of Florida summer hadn’t quite hit the smoldering levels a few calendar pages would bring. I would be gone before it reached the peak humidity index, but before I could indulge the inescapable desire to live in the city that inspired the cover art and album itself that I carried with me over the past decade, a trip was in order.
     It wasn’t for salvation or new found meaning necessarily, but for an assigned paper my brother was to complete. He invited me along with him on a trip to Cassadaga, and a few days later we were driving along I-4 en route to a township coined “The Psychic Capital of the World,” yet still only manages a mere six paragraph Wikipedia page (with the exception of the listed pop culture references).
     We had both stopped by there in passing independently before this trip, for the sake of Conor. Proof we had been where he had begun a mystical journey in search of some form of spiritualism. The center of energy, sitting on an overlap of ley lines that would demagnetize the sanity of anybody who stayed there longer than a three day weekend.

     We arrived with no particular plan beyond exploration, and executed the laissez-faire attitude of the day without any difficulty. Dropping lines from the album to one another, making the most of the experience. In defense of Cassadaga, it is a town unlike any other: there is absolutely nothing striking about it necessarily, yet there is an energy held within an invisible barrier,  unsettling while evoking a feeling of fascination for the oddity.
     We stumbled upon an abandoned bamboo garden of an old hotel that used to be there, now growing naturally in the Florida vegetation. Discovering it littered with beer cans, we assumed it safe to meander off the trail to actually explore until finding the seeming remnants of a recent satanic ritual. We strolled the sleepy streets, pointing out the most bizzare outdoor residential decor. Each house somehow feeling out of place with the rest of them--individual misfits in a collective eyesore that manages to leave an overall charming impression.
     I don’t have any memory of searching for what about Cassadaga could inspire an entire out-of-state trip, driving rented Cadillacs and flying on company jets. I don't have any memory of trying to figure out which aspect would spark enough significance to inspire some of the songs on the album named after the place. I didn’t come on the trip to have an experience, but out of sparked curiosity.
     We ended the day with the sun tiring, on a park bench where we had started it. We sat in comfortable silence, superficially indicative of an active day and the waning effects of early afternoon caffeination. It was there, in the sinking sun, that the perpetual racing thoughts of what was to come were at an unfamiliar ease. It wasn’t out of reassurance that everything would be okay, though; moreso, the sensation of fear in not succeeding felt better than existing as I currently was, as I had been.
     I was a less dramatic version of the line in “Four Winds...”

She just can’t sustain
The pressure where it’s placed
She caves

     I was existing in a pit of unhappiness and anxiety. I thought about “I Must Belong Somewhere,” and the dissatisfaction of not feeling comfortable where I am, physically and figuratively. I wasn’t left on white washed walls, a linen sheet, on a pedestal. I didn’t have the place where I belonged, but it must be somewhere. Right...? I needed my mystical pilgrimage to discover some form of spirituality that could only be offered to me by letting myself go to where I felt I needed to be.
     The silence was appropriately broken by yet another Conor Oberst lyric, courtesy of my brother--probably having found himself lost in his own thoughts as well. We embarked on one final cup of coffee and left the psychics reading auras in Cassadaga, where they belonged.

PART FOUR

 Now I walk around, in some kind of altered state
The drink in my hand, is starting to shake
I get used to it, if it has to stay this way
A new bunch of flowers, I’ll have to arrange

     Last week, I spent my second Thanksgiving in New York City, away from my family (because sacrificing a short Thanksgiving weekend is worth it for the perk of escaping the harsh winter for Christmas in Florida one month later).
     As a present to those convinced we were already suffering from early onset Seasonal Affect sometime mid-October, Conor Oberst released his fourth solo album, Ruminations. If you haven’t heard it, stop reading right now, listen to it in full, and then return to reading this essay.
     Before the album was officially released, I listened to it courtesy of NPR’s First Listen every single day. It would not be considered a concept album, but it plays like one. It is the surfacing of present issues of uncertainty, lingering guilt from the past, inescapable existential doubt about if the life you have lived and are still living actually has any meaning, and a deep yearning for the indescribable bliss brought on by recklessly enjoying not worrying about the long term.
     It is the anxiety attack you have laying in bed in a fit of insomnia, worsened by the mid-afternoon sunsets and lack of sunshine in the midst of winter. It is the recognition of the hero who was betrayed, the anti-hero who has fallen, and the harsh contemplation of your own worth somewhere in acknowledging theirs. It is the presentation of identity through the imaginary, the mirror, and the real phases, leaving you comfortable with hesitations about who you are and the trepidation you approach your future with.
     A few days after the official release, I taunt my budget with the purchase of a ticket to see An Intimate Night with Conor Oberst at Carnegie Hall the night before Thanksgiving. He was to perform the full album, no band; just Conor and one other for background instrumentals. Spending Thanksgiving in the city alone is not my favorite tradition, but this year, I-at the very least-had this to look forward to.

     I arrived at Carnegie Hall at exactly 8pm, right as the opener started his set. It was similar to the first time I had seen Bright Eyes live; Carnegie Hall is a venue that seems fit for a play OR, more aptly I suppose, a classical music performance (aka quite stuffy and no general admission). During the set break, the lady sitting next to me, reeking of menthol cigarettes and good intentions, struck up a conversation.
     She left work early driving into the city all the way from Pennsylvania. After spending the bulk of her afternoon in traffic, she picked up her son so they could come to the show together. It was her third time seeing Conor Oberst live. It was my seventh. At that mention, I catch a thirty-something, brown haired, Rayban wearing man in the section next to us turn his head abruptly, instantly interested in our conversation.
     Knowing he was eager to brag about how many times he had seen Conor Oberst live, I reluctantly let him into our conversation. He showed us his Bright Eyes album art forearm tattoo of a more liberally colored Fevers & Mirrors cover. The mom from Pennsylvania mentions her son has some Bright Eyes lyrics tattooed on his ribcage, she can't remember which ones though. The conversation continues in slight gushing until it fizzles out, but the guy with the Fevers & Mirrors tattoo hasn’t turned his attention away--not feigning interest in the program to escape the banal small talk or to check his cell phone.
     “Go ahead,” I offer.
     “Oh, what...how many times I’ve seen him life?”
     His attempts at a modest expression are overshadowed in unsuppressable gloating. It was his 34th time. I envy him while simultaneously admiring his commitment.
     Luckily, the house lights fade and the theatre is silenced immediately before erupting into applause, greeting the artist entering under a solo spotlight on an otherwise mostly barren stage. A piano, some amps, a few guitars, and three mic stands manifesting into one of the most moving performances of my young life.
     The first set was every song off Ruminations, as promised, with the indication that there would be a second set of some classic favorites. We even got an unexpected Leonard Cohen cover, following a humorous and empathetic anecdote of Conor's Election Night 2016.
     He closed the evening appropriately with the first track off of I’m Wide Awake, “At The Bottom of Everything.”

Oh, my morning's coming back
The whole world’s waking up
Oh, the city bus is swimming past
I'm happy just because
I found out I am really no one

     I rewatch the videos I took on the lengthy train ride home. I spend the next day, Thanksgiving Day, at work.
     Nothing is quite like the version of loneliness that comes from working at a hotel on a holiday, watching families reunite in excitement to do every long-standing tradition they have established over the course of decades, generations. I smile, returning greetings of the happy day and pretending to embrace the joy brought on by the fourth Thursday of every November. I spend the next few days lying to guests checking into the hotel and others I encounter in passing, prompting how my Thanksgiving was.
     Returning to an empty apartment for the next few nights,  the lack of company forces me to revisit the ever nagging question: Am I doing the right thing? Why am I here and what am I doing? Eventually some form a realization dawns on me.

     The journey that Conor Oberst has gone on with his music, both literally and figuratively, is about discovering a definition of happiness that makes sense for him. It’s about the weight of struggling to feel comfortable with feeling everything. He’s living in an attempt to reroute the course of the racing thoughts before they surrender to the dangerous spiral, the fractal thinking--, an attempt to rescue them once they have entered the terrifying vortex.
     It’s about searching for a meaning in life within a society that deems success as a more important aspect of life than meaningfulness. He’s recognizing that the unanswerable questions remain unknown, acknowledging that sometimes you end up drinking away the fear of the unresolved and sometimes you end up trying to find your own answers in the act of writing the fears away.
     He’s rejecting how the status quo defines a person and resisting forfeiting his values for a bottled version of fake happiness that is pushed upon you when you seek professional help for the nightmares and restless nights. He’s confronting the inner fears we all experience by giving them life through words, through sounds, through melody, in hopes to perhaps overcome them, but also just to befriend them and deal with them as a form of coping.
     Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just want all of that from him because I have found all of that in him over the past ten years of struggling with all of the same shit, trying to figure out a definition of happiness that makes sense to me. 
     Even if it's my own interpretation, it’s clear he struggles with the big picture, and that’s what makes him remain the artist’s artist. He continues to provoke raw emotion that you can feel sliding its way down your insides painfully, yet peacefully. Like the burn from the days of when you used to order your whiskey neat...