|BELIEVE THE HYPE? CONOR OBERST, OR RATHER, BRIGHT EYES.|
What aspiring singer-songwriter would want to be hailed as the New Dylan? Since at least the early '70s, any white performer with a guitar and a flicker of inspiration has been saddled with that label, and while it's no doubt flattering, it's often a burden needed to be thrown off as soon as possible.
Partly, these almost-annual pronouncements are offensive because we don't need a New Dylan. (The Old Dylan is doing quite well and
still making great albums, thank you.) And, also, it's an impossible conundrum for the young talent -- what, you're gonna produce a Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in the span of 14 months, too? Good luck.
Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes is our newest New Dylan -- Beck no longer fit the description, and, c'mon, PJ Harvey's a woman, so that doesn't count. He's young, he's sensitive, he's a poet, he's confessional -- and he's a total pain in the ass.
Most of us met the bratty twerp, now 24, on 2002's Lifted, or The
Story Is in the Bad Poetry, Keep Your Eyes on My Boyish Good Looks. All self-indulgent acting-out, Lifted remains the sound of being in your early 20s, thinking you're the shit, having a smart mouth and desperately needing to get over yourself. The New Dylan proclamations began around this time, and no doubt these prognosticators fondly recalled the young Dylan of the early '60s who blazed through a multitude of songs with a cigarette in his mouth and a chip on his shoulder. I still think Bob should have sued them all for libel. A few songs notwithstanding, I detested Lifted -- I can't recall an instance I've more wanted to knock out an artist's teeth than when wading through all that narcissistic self-pity. The adulation for Lifted was just one more indication that music critics know absolutely nothing, all of them blindly desperate to discover somebody new, no matter how underdeveloped that somebody might be.
Ironically, Oberst's latest records, which have earned him some strong critical thrashings, are actually the first sign of a talent with real potential. In the proud tradition of Bruce Springsteen (the New Dylan of the mid-'70s) and Nelly (New Dylan information not available), Bright Eyes have simultaneously released two separate albums which offer different sides of the performer's artistic personality. If the singer-songwriterly I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is meant to fortify his poet-troubadour credentials, the keyboards-are-cool Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is Conor Oberst 2010: a way for this particular Kid A to escape pigeonholing by going all Postal Service on us. Listening to them in succession, you notice how Lifted was merely a stepping stone along the way for where he's headed. This kid's been writing songs since his early teens, after all, and between proper albums and occasional EPs, you could never accuse Oberst of being lazy. But such productivity often breeds an inability to tell your good from bad -- and an arrogant insistence that every song is genius. Although these two albums are technically longer than the interminably longwinded Lifted, it breaks apart his musical pursuits into digestible courses. And there's very little fat in either portion.
Digital Urn has been the target of more derision -- apparently, New Dylans should not aspire to be Radiohead. But it's not like Oberst is making Metal Machine Music; much like Ben Gibbard dipping his toe into electronica with the Postal Service, Oberst wants to evade whiny typecasting by finding the warmth in a very cold genre. Lyrically, Digital Urn dabbles in the same dystopian grievances that's become standard operating procedure for indie acts flirting with keyboards -- everything's artificial these days, human beings are disconnected from one another, technology ain't so great, nothing is real, where is the love? For those obsessed with Dylan comparisons, Digital Urn might be Oberst's version of Going Electric -- the conscious attempt to turn his back on his core fans -- except it's not quite as convincing a transformation as it was for Bob. Plus, Bright Eyes have always messed around with more experimental arrangements, albeit nothing as confident as what we find here on the nervous "Time Code" or the guardedly optimistic "Easy/Lucky/Free" But what ultimately saves Digital Urn is Oberst's engaging enthusiasm for branching out; these left turns feel bracing and adventurous. Wide Awake is the stronger record, a declaration of what he can do well, but Digital Urn makes a solid argument for what he might be capable of in the future.
But while Digital Urn is being underrated, Oberst's willingness to trim his excesses on both records has been largely missed. Behind those strands of perfectly tussled hair that you see featured in every music-magazine profile of him, Oberst is a wimpy romantic; pretentious poetry and a snotty attitude are mere defense mechanisms to deflect just how much of a wuss he is. But his growing confidence has made him less reliant on those crutches; his melancholy has lots its obnoxiousness, allowing for humility. Lifted was a showoff's cocky arrival, but these two discs temper ambition with regret; they, like his detractors, ask him to grow up and accept adulthood as a pleasurable experience with its own rewards rather than a fate you stick your tongue out at. And his music rises to the challenge. Wide Awake fights sadness with pedal-steel beauty; Digital Urn tricks it out with synthesizers and treated vocals.
Much like Green Day's teenaged protagonists in American Idiot, Oberst has reached an age when he cannot yet fully articulate his feelings of disgust -- about the Iraq War, about his romantic disillusionment, about becoming a man -- but he has the roaring vitality to want to try. Wide Awake's country-ish "Landlocked Blues" and Digital Urn's percussion-heavy "I Believe in Symmetry" are but two examples of Oberst's ungainly mixture of social commentary, lost-love heartache and genuine stabs at a clever turn of phrase. ("It only gets worse if I stay in one place," he laments in "Landlocked Blues," "so I'm always pacing around or walking away.") Lifted, sheltered and self-absorbed, wanted to take over the world one loud complaint at a time; these two discs, wounded and graceful, have returned home after the long journey, changed and enlightened and confused by what they've seen. Less enamored of his talent than he used to be, Oberst has curbed the self-regard, and his generosity towards his subjects shows a willingness to stop staring into the mirror for inspiration. Wide Awake and Digital Urn are littered with sympathetic portrayals of lost souls and the dearly departed -- mentors and lovers who have passed on wisdom to a vulnerable guy looking for any guidance he can get. That annoying brat seems long gone.
In our memories, the young Dylan had a quicksilver talent that appeared fully formed. But re-watch Don't Look Back, the documentary of his triumphant spring 1965 tour of England, and you'll discover something remarkable. He's a hell of a performer, he's got great presence -- but he's also just a damn kid. Not yet 24, he was petty, awkward and, well, a little bit of a know-it-all jerk. Don't Look Back reminds us that our gifted wunderkinds are still young people, unfinished youths waiting to grow into the adults they will become. Wide Awake and Digital Urn are strong steps into maturity from a promising singer-songwriter, but he still has further to go. So did the Original Dylan at the same age. By my calculations, Conor Oberst doesn't have to worry about his Blood on the Tracks for another nine years, his Love & Theft for another 35. Let's let him see what he can do in that time.
Believe the Hype rating: 7out of 10.
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.