About a week ago, a copy of the new, and allegedly last Bright Eyes album got leaked. Don’t judge me, I’ll buy it when it comes out. A few days later, on what I guess was a defensive move by their label “Saddle Creek”, the album went streaming for free on NPR.
I’ve been pursuing this album for a while. There were rumours about it coming out and being their last album, but we didn’t really get a confirmation until “Shell Games” was released in December, I think? About a month ago I contacted this friend on Last.fm who had some songs from the album on his library, but he never answered back. Last weekend I was in Guadalajara in a Whitest Boy Alive concert and I came back to my house around 3 AM. I had a shower and then I decided to take a quick look at my email before I went to bed. I saw an email from said guy and got excited, it was a link to the leaked album and it came with instructions not to share it too much. The link was down, but after doing a quick Mediafire search on Google I found a few other copies.
I loaded the album to my iPod and made it through the first couple songs before I fell asleep (I was really tired). The first song had elements I’d never heard in a Bright Eyes song and I liked it a lot; I was excited to hear the rest of the album, but also too tired to stay awake. There was a time when I really liked Conor’s writing and felt very close to it, but lately I felt like he had gotten stuck. There’s something about the eloquency of his writing that I find very honest and easy to relate to.
The next day all I listened to was this album, and that has pretty much remained the same these days, along with the few albums of The Radio Dept., who I’ll be seeing live in a couple weeks. I still dont’t know what to think about it. NPR called it the best album Oberst has done, and that could be true, but I personally feel that there’s something missing from this album. It feels distanced, not really as honest as his previous work with this band, or any band, actually. Put simply, the structure of the album, the production, the music; everything is great, but the lyrics — which are always my favorite part of Bright Eyes, along with the intensity and contrast of them with the music– seem to be lackluster and shallow in comparison to his older stuff.
That has been my complaint about pretty much everything Conor has done after his I’m Wide Awake/Digital Ash days. Cassadaga may have been a good album if another band had done it, but I expected heartfelt lyrics and themes from Mr. Oberst. His solo album and his Mystic Valley Band project were a lot of fun, but then again, “fun” is not what Conor does best. His contributions to the Monsters of Folk seemed to pick up on his eloquence, but the themes seemed distant to him, not really personal (notice how he started writing in second person, “Map of the World”).
Now we get this record, where I guess he tries to combine his maturity with his old writing style. And that’s fine. It’s not that I want Conor to be depressed, and dosed in alcohol, drugs and sadness in order for him to write good, honest songs. He has grown up, and as such, his interest has changed as he has matured. He isn’t a teenager anymore, I get that. But that does ‘t mean he needs to stop writing about real adult themes like The National and Arcade Fire do.
Let’s get off-topic a bit. See, the way I think of it, there are two kinds of songwriters. The ones who focus most of their efforts on the music and just come up with lyrics that suit the music and have a nice rhythm. Think of how sometimes LCD Soundsystem’s lyrics feel stupid, like “your city is a sucker, my city is a creep”. Sounds good and fits in the music, but it doesn’t mean anything. Then there’s the second type, the ones who rely heavily on the lyrics to make the most emotional impact. A good example of this is I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes. The lyrics in that album are what stands up the most when you hear it, it’s made that way.
That said, I like the direction Conor took with this album. He feels honest again. Well, sometimes. A lot of people have compared this album to his semi-electronic album Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, but I don’t really feel that. For one, this album isn’t as “electronic”, in fact, it still had its own folky moments in places like “Ladder Song”. Also, it lacks the awesome drums that Digital Ash had and that were one of my favorite parts about that album. Also, I recall Digital Ash being highly emotional and intense, and I remember it having this really tense moments ala Arcade Fire, like that one part in “I Believe in Sympathy” where he went all emotional on us near the end and the instrumentation got so loud and intense and needy of attention that it made it almost imposible to listen to, but yet so gratifying; or that part in “Hit the Switch” where he started singing about how he was such an alcoholic that he got this burn when he peed.
I have not, and I will not study the lyrics in this album. The lyrics are always the last part that “clicks” with me, and the music is always the first thing, so I always try to give an album a few listens before I pass judgement on it. I have not, however, felt anything from this lyrics in the nearly dozen times I’ve heard this album. When I used to hear older Bright Eyes’ albums, I heard parts from the songs and I thought, “well, that’s something I’ve felt before but never been able to put into words”. I haven’t had those moments with this album. I’m sure it still has some great lyrics and phrases in it, but they haven’t “jumped” to me. I feel like I’m repeating myself. Maybe because I really, really wanted this album to be like the older ones, when it really isn’t. But I guess it’s for the best. I wouldn’t want Conor to get into “formulaic” albums where he just keeps repeating himself even though he doesn’t feel anything he is writing about.
Like I said, it’s more mature. Conor isn’t venting how he is “sitting drunk on the piano bench” or how the “sound of loneliness makes him happier”. He is still, however, “angry with no reason to be”. It’s a good album, but it’s not as emotional as his earlier works. It’s just good, adult music.
What an awful conclusion, I know.