A Musical Vision Comes Into Focus

"I don't really plan ahead too much of what I'm going to write about," says Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. (By Butch Hogan)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 18, 2005

AT THE BEGINNING of 2005, Bright Eyes -- aka Conor Oberst -- was inescapable, gracing the covers of countless music magazines in conjunction with the dual release of "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn."

The first album, essentially solo and acoustic in nature, was full of the word-intense folk-rooted music that led Rolling Stone to dub Oberst "the indie rock Bob Dylan" and "rock's boy genius." It's a sound the 25-year-old Omaha-bred Oberst has been tweaking since releasing his first recordings at 13. Oberst has grown up to become an indie heartthrob, thanks to his good looks, heartfelt confessional lyrics and a fragile but intense voice once described in a review as "the slightly outta tune voice of a generation."

"Digital Ash" was an electric album with electronica twists and a more developed rhythmic presence, which was somewhat uncharacteristic, though hardly enough to burden Oberst with the sellout cries Dylan experienced in the '60s. Both albums were released on Saddle Creek, the collectively run Omaha-based label that Oberst and some pals created in junior high. Today, it's one of the hippest of alt-rock indies, its first decade celebrated in a new DVD documentary, "Spend an Evening With Saddle Creek."

Considering that Oberst's debut, "Water" -- recorded in his parents' basement the summer before he started eighth grade -- sold 100 cassette copies (mostly to family and friends), the commercial success of his latest releases has been quite a surprise: "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard album chart and "Digital Ash" at No. 15. Together, nearly 600,000 copies have been sold.

More surprisingly, the debut singles from each album -- "Lua," Oberst's soft-spun meditations as a newly minted New Yorker, and the more beat-driven "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" -- snagged the top two spots on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles sales chart, a substantial breakthrough for indie rock and something that hadn't been accomplished since 1997, when the-rapper-then-known-as-Puff Daddy did it with "I'll Be Missing You" and "Mo' Money Mo' Problems."

Such success renders one scene in the Saddle Creek documentary ironic. The label has great indie credibility, but until recently, its releases seldom achieved six-figure sales. It wasn't until the Faint's 2004 album, "Wet From Birth," and Cursive's 2005 compilation, "The Difference Between Houses and Homes," that the label's other top two bands broke the 100,000 mark, as Bright Eyes had first done with 2002's "Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground." At that time, label president Robb Nansel bestowed on Oberst a "wooden" record, adding that there would be no more celebrations until someone sold 500,000 copies (the record industry's official "gold" standard).

"And I don't think we're going to do it," Nansel jokes in the documentary.

Speaking from New York recently, Oberst said, "If we do get a true gold record a few years from now, Rob's going to have to come up with a seriously big party for everyone!"

As for Bright Eyes, Oberst seems ready for a little shut-eye after having already toured twice this year, once for each record (first acoustically, then with a 10-piece band). As 2005 ends, he's going out one last time under the malleable Bright Eyes moniker, serving up a different show every night from his considerable songbook; this road show features harp, xylophone, clarinet, trumpets and pedal steel guitar, as well as more traditional instrumentation. He stops at DAR Constitution Hall on Friday.

"We always have a different band when we're on tour, and so we always have to learn a different set of songs," Oberst says, adding that for this go-round, "we learned as many songs as we could so we could do different sets every night and not feel bored."

The challenge, one would think, is less music than memory: Oberst is a decidedly wordy fellow, and those dense lyrics and observational narratives, frequently eschewing traditional verse-chorus symmetry, can't be easy to remember.

"The more I play certain songs, they'll morph a little bit on the way, with lyrical changes or melody shifts," Oberst concedes. "I have a terrible memory in general, but one thing I've always been able to remember is my songs. Sometimes you lose the plot in your mind, but in my songs, there's a logical progression from the way one line ends to where it somehow prompts the next line, even if when the song's starting I'm thinking, 'Oh, there's no way I'm remembering all these words!' "

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