If video killed the radio star, rituals killed the singer-songwriter. Nevertheless, in 1999, there’s a sensitive white guy with a guitar for every Starbucks, and a song of heartbreak for every Frappuccino. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine that folk music was once avant-garde. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine Bob Dylan as the most dangerous musician in America. Especially when his son is living his legacy on the Godzilla soundtrack.
Under the alias Bright Eyes, Omaha’s Conor Oberst makes folk music dangerous again. Sure, Oberst is here to sing us his story, but his reality isn’t melancholy and downhearted. It’s panicked and horrified.
Bright Eyes’ sophomore effort, Every Day and Every Night (Saddle Creek Records), begins with A Line Allows Progress, a Circle Does Not. In the opening song, a gently strummed guitar introduction soon falters under the thrust of vaudeville-esque chiming. And then Oberst’s manic vocal approach pushes everything to the brink of collapse. This fragile balance is brilliantly sustained throughout the five delicate tracks on Every Day and Every Night.
The album reaches its zenith at the finale of A Perfect Sonnet. Oberst bursts out wailing I believe that lovers should be chained together/and thrown into the fire with their songs and letters/left there to burn in their arrogance. Such talk may seem sentimental and overwrought on paper, but the excruciating burn in Oberst’s vocal chords is terrifying and beautiful. You don’t empathize. You don’t commiserate. You tremble.
At the age of 19, Oberst created something timid and reckless that’s impossible to ignore. And although Bright Eyes’ musings may be received initially with mild irritation or confusion, eventually these songs will demand your attention, capture your heart, scare you to death and sing you to sleep.