Despite its name, Bright Eyes’ style is ironically dark, desolate, and self-pitying at times. It is also pensive, reflective, and existential — making singer-songwriter, guitarist, and frontman Conor Oberst one of the greatest “sad boys” in music. Given his recent collaborative project with Phoebe Bridgers on Better Oblivion Community Center, you could say we’re amid a new age of Conor Oberst.
Oh yeah, and speaking of a new age: Bright Eyes is back and has released a handful of dates for its 2020 tour. Not only will this commence the band’s first shows in more than nine years, but they have also signed to a new record label with plans to release new music.
In the interim, let’s revisit the emo indie-folk charisma of Bright Eyes and the songs featuring their most profound lyrics.
5. “Something Vague”
To start things off nice and heavy, “Something Vague” addresses some dismal topics, namely death and depression. The song begins with an alluring acoustic guitar riff before Oberst sings, “Now and again it seems worse than it is, but mostly the view is accurate.” Later, as the vocals jump up an octave, it’s the first time he allows his voice to break — and it’s full of feeling as he laments, “There’s a dream in my brain that just won’t go away / It’s been stuck there since it came a few nights ago.”
Even the most enthusiast Bright Eyes fans will acknowledge that Oberst’s vocal delivery is far from perfect. But if there’s anything his songwriting exudes, it’s humanness in whatever form it happens to take. The unpredictable oscillation of his voice is a reflection of his uncertainty, instability, and inner chaos. In the track’s closing line, he attempts to grapple with the meaning of his subconscious:
“And do these dreams have any meaning? / No. No, I think it’s more like a ghost that’s been following us both / Something vague that we’re not seeing / Something more like a feeling.”
4. “First Day of My Life”
Perhaps the most quotable song about being overtaken by love, “First Day of My Life” describes a rebirth of oneself after meeting someone special. Sure, it’s jam-packed with cliches, but they’re damn good ones. “I think I was blind before I met you,” “I don’t care; I could go anywhere with you, and I’d probably be happy,” and “Remember the time you drove all night just to meet me in the morning?” are a few of the standout lines. Accompanied by a tenderly plucked guitar, the track captures a hopeful, refreshed outlook on life.
“With these things, there’s no telling / We just have to wait and see,” Oberst sings in the last verse, then confirming willingness to commit and work for love with, “But I’d rather be working for a paycheck than waiting to win the lottery.”
3. “Four Winds”
Bright Eyes has never shied away from sociopolitical symbolism in their lyrics. From the concept of individualistic patriotism and loyalty to one’s way of life (“Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name, or your tribe / There’s people always dying, trying to keep ’em alive”) to the notion that the truth is often complex (“The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Qu’ran is mute / If you burned them all together, you’d get close to the truth”), the band leans heavily into folk in “Four Winds.” This track is one of Oberst’s strongest studio vocal performances and is featured on his 2007 release, Cassadaga.
Pivoting away from Bright Eyes’ musings on war and religion, “Lua” from 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning tells tales of crippling loneliness and addiction. An alternate version of the track is also featured on the Dark Was the Night compilation as a chilling duet featuring Oberst and Gillian Welch. As the singers continue to alternate stanzas, Welch enters with, “We might die from medication, but we sure killed all the pain / What was normal in the evening by the morning seems insane.”
There’s a recurring theme of letting go of one’s worries in the nighttime — particularly through substance abuse — only to be greeted by them with greater fervor in the morning. The statements “The mask I polish in the evening by the morning looks like shit” and “What is simple in the moonlight by the morning never is” harken back to this.
1. “At the Bottom of Everything”
A classic combination of political, satirical, and existential, “At the Bottom of Everything” truly captures all angles of Bright Eyes’ charisma. As the opening track to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, we’re introduced to the album with a bizarre monologue from Oberst. Right when you’re starting to wonder if it’s ever going to end, there begins a snappy strumming pattern on a muted acoustic guitar to set the tempo before the vocalist counts us in: “One, two, one, two, three, four.”
The remainder of the song contains fascinating — if not bleak — juxtapositions, such as, “While my mother waters plants, my father loads his gun.” And to really drive home the point that he’s straddling the line somewhere between existentialism and nihilism, Oberst declares, “I’m happy just because I found out I am really no one.”