In 2000, when the quintessential Bright Eyes album Fevers and Mirrors came out, I was in fifth grade and unaware of a percolating poetry called emo that would define my generation. The most emotionally bare album I owned at the time was by Hoku, the Carl Wilson of early aughts pop stars. She was the earthy Hawaiian with bangs and puka bead necklaces. She sang moody truisms on her ukulele like “How do I feel / I miss you for real,” which I listened to during lunch drawing tessellations in empty classrooms with my three other antisocial friends. Hoku’s most famous song “Perfect Day” was not a Lou Reed cover, but both songs are basically about the same thing. Reed: “You’re going to reap just what you sow.” Hoku: “I’m in the race but I’ve already won.” These platitudes worked then, but in about two years, it was emo that would get me through the lonelier, confusing middle school years. The music of Bright Eyes helped me grow from solitary fifth grader into an adult, able to articulate and face my emotions instead of hiding in an empty classroom.
A decade later, the Oberst train rolled back into my orbit at the tail end of 2012. This time I was ready for him, and had the chance to review his special acoustic performance at Carnegie Hall. At the show, I watched Oberst step forward as a mix between cowardly lion and rhinestone cowboy. There, I was by far the least ensconced in Bright Eyes lore. I never went through a phase of printing out Oberst’s lyrics and taping them to my bedroom wall, I never dyed my hair or purchased a patch from Hot Topic, even though I spiritually identify with all of these tiny acts of subversion. But even if I was too into Hoku when Fevers and Mirrors initially came out, I still connected with it then, years later. Oberst’s songwriting touches a nerve that goes much deeper than just teenage emotions, defining it in that way diminishes the deep impact of his songwriting. By being vulnerable, he lets the listener feel strong–this is the bravest thing an artist can do.
In more recent years, Oberst’s songwriting seemed to be everything people said Nashville was without him actually being from or recording in Nashville; he sang in stunning metaphors: “She moves like a chocolate fountain / Pouring, spilling all round him,” and backward glances: “Life can’t compete with memories / They never have to change,” and like a lonely teenager who prints out lyrics and tapes them on his wall: “When I lost myself I lost you by extension/ I don’t know who would stand to gain.” It might have sounded discombobulated from another artist, but Oberst masterfully wove these disparate genres and styles into his own mythology, beginning with the galvanic band Bright Eyes and moving easily and seamlessly into a rich, disparate solo legacy. He might’ve helped define the term emo, but his music has not been defined by it. As his music helped his listeners grow into themselves, Oberst grew up, too.
Conor Oberst began the most openly country stage of his career in his mid-30s with the release of Upside Down Mountain in 2014. “Boarding a train to take my memories back / Make up for the time that I have lost,” Conor Oberst sings on “Time Forgot,” one of his newest songs. “I never know if I’m delusional / I just believe that I am not.” But instead of rolling down to San Antone, the engine of Oberst’s mind took him to Laurel Canyon, California circa 1975. On Mountain, Oberst turns his self-scrutinizing glass up to unexpected characters. He sings about Instagram users (“Cameras everywhere I look imitating art”) on the haunting “Double Life” and Chuck Bass types (“Money clips, alligator shoes / One more dance, he’s in that champagne room”) on album closer “Common Knowledge.” With the help of producer Jonathan Wilson, Oberst sounded more like a hardened western hero than a plucky midwestern minstrel. His signature quiver is heightened by pedal steel and the plush folkiness of the Felice Brothers, all tempered by a sun-tinged California vibe. Maybe he’s traded in country sonics for early emo sounds, but all the vulnerability is still there.
Over fifteen years into his career, one can easily trace the way Oberst bridged the gap between folk and country music with his more recent outfits like the Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk. It’s not a coincidence that shaman lyricists like Father John Misty, Devendra Banhart and Lana Del Rey came up in Bright Eyes’ afterglow; as did homespun bands like First Aid Kit, the Watson Twins and Nickel Creek. The blending of confessional folk with creeping Californian joie-de-vivre has illuminated a new musical sensibility; his latest record seamlessly married country and California pop, almost a prophetic patchwork of the two artists he will headline this year’s Northside Festival with. When he plays the festival in Brooklyn this June, it’ll be alongside Nashville’s young poet Kacey Musgraves and California sun saint Brian Wilson. It’s easy to cast Wilson as a precursor to Oberst’s vulnerability, and Musgraves points toward the soft, 70s-infused country he’s pursued since. This show will be my first time watching him play since that time back in 2012, and feels like an alignment of Oberst’s influences and his influence on music. Bright Eyes helped me grow up, but Conor Oberst has helped me move beyond the growing pains. Sometimes the most vulnerable thing is leaving the fever of the past behind, and climbing a new mountain.
Conor Oberst will perform a project-spanning set at Northside Festival on June 11 as part of a co-bill with kindred spirit Kacey Musgraves. The show, taking place at McCarren Park, is a benefit for the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn (OSA), a nonprofit dedicated to building a stronger North Brooklyn by improving 45 parks and playgrounds and getting neighbors involved in their parks.