Let the Bright Eyes backlash commence

Jon Dieringer

Bright Eyes’ latest album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning begins with the sound of frontman (and for all practical purposes, sole member) Conor Oberst sipping coffee a conspicuous distance from the microphone.

This was not a good first impression to give to a listener who already suspected that Oberst’s critically acclaimed body of work was nothing but a tragic self-parody of fashionably detached, pseudo-intellectual hipsters.

It’s not that I didn’t want to like Bright Eyes. I first heard Oberst when 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors came out. I didn’t think much of it, but with the recent buzz that surrounded the dual release of Wide Awake and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, I couldn’t help but feel that I might have missed something.

After spending hours listening and relistening to Bright Eyes’ last four albums and various other odds and ends, I can’t say my opinion has changed.

Oberst is credited as being an unusually prolific recording artist-and not just for his young age. He has been called the “Voice of Our Generation,” “The Next Bob Dylan” and any number of other superlative phrases.

These praises have been written by the likes of Time and Newsweek on the basis that two of his independently released singles, without the support of radio play, took the top two spots of the Billboard Hot 100 within a week of their late-2004 release, as well as the frequent Bright Eyes name-drops on the Fox series “The O.C.”

It confirms nothing short of my worst fears to know that the spokesman of my generation has been determined by Sound Scan figures and Nielsen ratings.

Oberst’s lyrics speak to no universal truths the way many of Dylan’s best did, instead equating love with codependency, tragedy with crying on a bathroom floor and emotional vacuity with an empty bottle of recreationally used painkillers. Some critics read this as bare sincerity.

I find quite the opposite to be true — in fact, I find almost every single thing about his music to be insincere.

His delivery is nothing but affected modesty and intentional stuttering, as if he lacks confidence in the effective ness of his lyrics to properly convey his (uncomfortably too many) insecurities. And with both his music and his lyrics, he makes liberal use of irony, which is more often than not the mark of one who is too ashamed to be sincere.

But listening to this, I can’t help but feel that he is a direct follower of Jonathan Richman, who’s one of my favorite recording artists. Richman often stammers through his songs as he half talks/half sings in the tradition of Lou Reed. As for insecurity, Richman has an album called I’m So Confused.

But Richman stands on the outside feeling sorry for those within. Oberst just sounds like sour grapes.

It’s unfortunate because he has quite an ear for melody and arrangements. I’d love to hear someone else do a version of “False Advertising” if the lyrics didn’t beat to death the same you-have-me-on-a-string metaphor that even Metallica had the good sense to restrict to just one verse of “Master of Puppets.”

But I can’t say that’s good enough for me. The only emotion he makes me feel is anger toward those who keep trying to tell me he is my voice and pity for those who believe it.

As someone who has experienced heartbreak, confusion and rejection, I see Bright Eyes’ music as nothing but a shameful exploitation of them and a stubborn rejection of dealing with them.

Although, in the end, I suppose it’s Oberst who gets the last laugh.

Much as it begins on one, Wide Awake also ends on a rather appropriate note. For one of the last lyrics of “Road to Joy” (as the name implies, an embarrassingly bad parody of “Ode to Joy”), Oberst sings, “Well I could have been a famous singer / If I had someone else’s voice.”

Surely he appreciates how tragically ironic that is.

Contact Pop Arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].