Relearning Bright Eyes

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on the band’s career-spanning box set

The greatest gift of any sprawling, career-spanning set of remasters is an introduction to that which once went unheard. This is particularly exciting for Bright Eyes’ brand of music, which dances on the line between whispery and frantic depending on the emotions of the band’s leader, Conor Oberst. Bright Eyes’ The Studio Albums 2000–2011 contains several small and delightful moments that I recall existing differently or not existing at all when I first encountered the original albums. A more pronounced vocal tremble bleeds through the track in “A Scale, a Mirror, and Those Indifferent Clocks,” from 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors; the rush of percussion that opens “Time Code,” from 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, sounds more pronounced, sharper; “No One Would Riot for Less,” from 2007’s Cassadaga, haunts in a way that feels new. All of these moments serve the only reason for representing an entire lineage of music in this way: to grant a new breath to what the interior of the music is doing.

If you, like me and like many of my era, have an investment in the emotional ride of Conor Oberst, you likely also have an investment in Bright Eyes, the most notable vehicle that he has used for his emotional outpouring. For better or worse, that makes consumption of this much of his work both difficult and deliciously uneven in a way that I appreciate. I am of an age close to Oberst’s. I was first drawn to him by how effortless his emotional risk seemed at a time when that type of risk seemed impossible for me and so many people I knew. By the time Bright Eyes released Fevers and Mirrors, the first album in this set, Oberst was not yet old enough to drink. Still, there is timelessness in the angst, the anxieties about love, loss, and regret. In “A Song to Pass the Time,” which I hadn’t listened to in years before this, when Oberst sings, “Woman, you come here / Don’t stay so far away from me / This weather has me wanting love more tangible / Something I can hold ’cause it’s getting cold,” I still find the same small ache that I found in 2000, when those same lyrics hovered over me and refused to move. There is, for my small lot, no better Bright Eyes song than “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” from 2002’s Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. I most loved Bright Eyes when they allowed themselves to let go and bleed into a more aggressive noise. Now, I find that the song is both exhilarating and painful in new ways. This, too, is a function of the career-spanning release. It allows for unexpected and sometimes uncontrollable nostalgia. I work, almost entirely, at the center of memory. And so there is something delightful about having your arms pulled backward to reach something that you can’t relate to touching anymore.

Conor Oberst changed the way we talk about growing up publicly. Starting out as a teenager in the late ’90s, at the peak era of onetime child stars making it to the top of the charts and having their private lives spilled all over front pages, Oberst chose another way. If you put your entire emotional existence into your music, and you release enough of it (Bright Eyes released seven albums between 2000 and 2011), there might be fewer questions about what’s happening behind the scenes. When young musicians of his era were offering manufactured looks behind the curtains, Oberst opted instead to go entirely curtainless. He was, in retrospect, building an entire timeline of his life through a thread of songs. He left space for an emotional connection with young fans who were watching someone who could have been them, trying to clean up a mess that looked like one they might have been familiar with.

I must admit here that I, like many people I know, felt this connection fade as I got older. As my own urgency leveled out, Oberst continued to make music that was stunning and emotionally layered, but felt distant from my own needs and concerns. Listening to all of his works in order presents an interesting context that makes the journey more interesting. I first sighed as the set kicked into Digital Ash, which was the album that signaled the distance I began to feel from Oberst’s music back in 2005. Now, though, with an entire era of music at my disposal, it is a more endearing and challenging listen — one that reminds me that Oberst, too, was once young and then got older. In this way, he was just like all of the other young stars of his era. He had to figure out how to navigate adulthood in a way that stayed true to who he was becoming, while still carrying everyone with him. His struggle was, of course, a different one than those faced by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, or Justin Timberlake, but it was rooted in a similar, human fight: So often, we want our beloveds, our heroes, to stay as they were when we met them first. But we also ask them to take us with them, no matter where the journey leads. It’s something we’re not always actually prepared for, but it sounds nice.

With this in mind, I listened to both Digital Ash and Cassadaga with new ears. It sounds now like an artist with time at his back, fighting to hold on to who he is. I am getting older now, and I have long given up on denying it in the ways that I might have in 2005 or 2007. Because of this, I feel like I have no choice but to appreciate the artist who wrestles with what time asks of them, and pushes back. These two albums are still my two least favorite in the set, but they do more emotional labor than the others, which tend to wear everything across their chests in a way that is beautiful, but not as nuanced. “Devil in the Details,” for example, is a hard song. It looks inward and picks away at regret and failure. I say, always, give me the hard song, even if I don’t love it. Bright Eyes, in this mid-to-late-2000s era, built a small and necessary run of songs that asked the kind of questions one asks when they are not a kid anymore, and not relying on a rush of feelings to carry them over to the other side where all is forgiven. There’s a type of clarity in that, too.

In September 2016, I listened to these albums in the way I used to listen to all Bright Eyes albums: on the road, leaving one place and going to someplace better. I-80 runs through Pennsylvania and into Ohio, and it is vacant enough for the imagination to let it become anything. It is the perfect landscape for this, a listening experience that asks for reflection. So the highway became a road out of many towns. The highway became a road out of any heartbreak I’d turned my back on. The highway became a road away from a house of mirrors. And, as the final song on 2011’s The People’s Key, “One for You, One for Me,” rattled itself silent, the highway became a road away from the denial of time. Bright Eyes reminded me, again, of the uneasiness of growing up, and how it must be conquered nevertheless.