In Defense of Preciousness
I swear this embarrasses me as much as it does you, but back when I was into Thomas Mann and T.S. Eliot and the whole modernist thing pretty exclusively—because I really thought that the only honest way to convey feeling was through the strain and poise of avoidance—I came across my first Bright Eyes album and fucking lost it.
I’ll spare you the details of my psychodrama, because even though there’s no doubt in my mind that the clichés are true, albums really do change our lives, music saves, etc. etc., I think the proof generally sounds pretty stupid. The thing I really wanted to say, without embarrassing any of us more than strictly necessary, is that I fell in love, first and foremost, not with the obvious touchstones for critical praise—singer-songwriter Conor Oberst’s hand with the fresh metaphor or unexpected rhyme, say, or producer Mike Mogis’ pristine rough-polish recordings—but with the trembly-crackly voice of Oberst. The one that seems to drive everyone I know who cares about music, even people who value Oberst for his songwriting and maybe even acknowledge that I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning would be a good album if it wasn’t for just this one, small, incredibly irritating tic, uniformly crazy.
But that teary little quaver is exactly what I wanted in this music, what pushed it into a region untouched by the careful, well-made poems and novels of sadness and ambivalence I had until then put my emotional stock in. If punk, as Greil Marcus suggests, is not really about apathy and tough-guy aggression, but about the vulnerability and loss pinched into the space between a “blank stare and sardonic grin,” then it seems to me that nearly every Bright Eyes song, for all their associations with whiny and self-important misery, is about that hope, that utterly overwrought tremor, that crack in the voice through which even the most bleak statement is shot with light. Damn right it’s precious, which is to say, unearned, which is to say not the world-weary croak of the folksinger’s yeah-but-what-can-you-do grief, but the complaint of some kid who can’t know, honestly, that it’s really that bad, who’s still young and stubborn enough not to have learned how little his own misery matters.
“I don’t get it,” a friend told me, talking about her own enamoured response to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. “I am so not into melodrama. I hate it when people are like that in real life.”
My hunch is that she’s not alone, that there is a secret contingent of Bright Eyes fanatics who are uneasy with the large gesture, the rampant sincerity of it all, yet somehow find themselves seduced by this spectacle of a guy freaking out in front of his mirror. Those of us, I mean, who have grown out of making the kind of grand statements that form the staples of the Bright Eyes lexicon—I’m a waste of space; I swear that I’m dying—but may not have grown entirely out of thinking them.
I don’t mean that Oberst speaks for us or something, that he sings what we’d sing, if we had the voice for it. That dubious honour would probably go to someone like Hayden Dresser or Will Oldham, someone whose sadness just sounds like sadness, uncomplicated by affectation or overcharged hope, a measured, adult reaction we think we can live with. What draws us (okay, me—I guess I’m not fooling anyone with this “royal we” business) to the music is almost the opposite. I recognize the sentiment but can hardly fathom the response, this huge access of energy and light the singer manages to draw from fairly typical, unimportant failures. I mean, god, the exhilaration at the end of “If Winter Ends”, when he gets to the “Why should I expect anyone else to give a…” and then breaks free into the ether with that “shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit”—I know what he means, I could swear that I’m dying too, though I know I’m not, and that it could be worse, and that if I kick and scream and convince myself that I can’t stand it, then it probably will be worse. But I can watch as he burns clear through the last verse into a pitch of desperate hope—and hangs there, screaming in a clear place.
So it has to do with the energy of transformation. Why I should turn to Bright Eyes, a band that has drawn on a pretty consistent set of hang-ups and sore spots for ten years now, for a sense of what it might mean to be changed utterly? Well, that’s something I don’t understand yet. Oberst has written two songs that explicitly address a transformation at once abstract and personal: “Something Vague”, from his 2000 breakthrough album, Fevers and Mirrors, and “From a Balance Beam” from the follow-up, Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground. Both talk, in a roundabout way, about life in the public eye, and both manage to find something there richer and more general than you usually get in the Ballad of the Lonely Rock Star. Both talk of the transformation as a form of death, and invoke notions of death as a transformation into something rich and strange.
The biggest difference in attitude between the two songs is that they happen from opposites sides of the footlights. “Something Vague” was written before more than a handful of people outside of Omaha knew anything about a young singer-songwriter named Conor Oberst, before bloggers in Tallahassee and Long Island started putting up links to songs on their sites, and long before Spin and Rolling Stone and Magnet picked up on it. Its point of view is very much that of the kid strumming and screaming from inside his cocoon of obscurity; hoping against hope that there is something in these private tantrums that connects him to something bigger, something out there; not really able to imagine what that might be. “From a Balance Beam” was written after Fevers and Mirrors had sold more than 10,000 copies, after four tours to Europe and two to Japan, at a time when Oberst could, without much danger of rejection, walk up to a stranger in a bar and tell her he liked her shoes; at a time, also, when he seems at his most nostalgic, his most susceptible to idealizing the boy in his bedroom strumming and screaming in all the purity of his solipsism.
“Something Vague” opens with a surprisingly unhysterical description of chronic depression—“Now and again it seems worse than it is / But mostly the view is accurate”—and with a couple of exceptions (“the coffin you call your apartment”, “then you…drink the cold away”) the opening verse chooses clear-eyed banality over romanticization. It’s a nice little trick, to begin the song with the recognition that unhappiness and isolation can cloud your vision; saying yes, things change, but this—finding yourself alone at the end of a day that goes on just a few hours longer than seems manageable; some not-very-catchy-but-all-the-same-insistent song, all unchanging I-V-IV chords and plodding melody, stuck in your head—probably doesn’t. It’s a nice gesture, especially since the song, which begins in polite deference to the possibility of exaggeration in a vacuum, is in a sense about how the narrator’s blinkered existence may in fact allow him to see clearer, further, than any normal, healthy people, caught up in the ebb and flow of their lives, buffeted here and there by the moment-to-moment interactions that mean so much and change so little, and who would have the narrator share their normal, healthy perspective.
Especially since, as we learn in the second verse, he has had a vision of sorts, one whose spaciousness and clarity seems strangely bound up with the foggy and claustrophobic movements of his waking life. He sees himself “standing on a bridge in the town where [he] lived as a kid with [his] mom and [his] brothers”. Then, as it always does in such dreams, the bridge dissolves—the sweetness of nostalgia turns out to be unsupportable. A psychoanalyst would probably say this means a suspended transition: the dreamer is unable either to return to his childhood or to pass over to the next stage. A morbid person (say, me) will tell you that he can’t make up his mind whether to cross the bridge or jump off it. Someone familiar with Bright Eyes’ later repertoire will probably assume it’s his usual navel-gazing ambivalence about fame—only, of course, no one’s actually heard of him yet, and for now he really is the kid he’s always singing about, the one who feels himself dissolving day to day under the pressure of his own invisibility and mediocrity, who has to keep writing another song just to prove his existence—though, like I said, this is the album that will change all that.
And while “Something Vague” does feel, in retrospect, like an intimation of audiences and fame and fortune to come, it’s all too weightily prophetic just now, too enmeshed with any number of other abstract possibilities of transformation—too, well, vague. Sure, it’s hard not to read the punchline—“[a]nd I hang like a star / Fuckin’ glow in the dark / For all those starving eyes to see”—in terms of the old self-pitying/self-aggrandizing trope that runs from Shakespeare’s “so long lives this and this gives life to thee” straight down to Cohen’s “we are ugly but we have the music”, the idea of the artist exchanging an imperfect private life for a kind of impersonal shining. But that middle verse comes out of nowhere; that single clear image of the kid held up by an interval of time and memory that doesn’t exist anymore comes straight out of the narrator’s foggy automatism and goes right back there for the third and final verse. The metaphor can’t be cashed out, except as a complete negation of the life he’s now living. “Now I’m confused”, Oberst sings in the final verse. “Is this death really you?”
He’s not thinking of shining, his private collapses cheered on by audiences of thousands; he’s thinking of having nowhere to stand anymore, of what gets lost when you become what you hoped to be, and stop being the person who hoped for it. If he’s thinking of fame at all, it’s the kind of fame Nick Drake got, and as in Drake’s own “Hanging on a Star”, he already has a clear and bitter knowledge of the lapses that come between giving and receiving light. So, in a sense “Something Vague” is about how transformation can spring up from the centre of a life almost incurably insular. In a sense, it is the usual myth, fairly accurate in Oberst’s case, of how personal ugliness or misery or banality, caught in the right light and reproduced for public consumption, can be transformed into something beautiful or at least useable. But it also holds, stubbornly, to the original ugliness. It says whatever change is coming, it can have nothing to do with who he is now, with the person who sings “Now and again it seems worse than it is / But mostly the view is accurate”, who has seen day after day end about the same for long enough (so he says) to know, not without a kind of grim pleasure, that this is how it’s going to be.
“From a Balance Beam” doesn’t pick up where “Something Vague” left off so much as blow it out of the water at the point of departure. Everything has been turned inside out in this song, all that was small and insulated and inward on Fevers and Mirrors is busted into the open. Now the million hungry eyes charting and changing the speaker’s every move are the reality, while the boy locked in his room humming all the old tunes over and over is the dream he can’t quite get at or get out of his head. It’s a song about the effects of fame, sure, about private failure becoming public spectacle, the light of public scrutiny imbuing that spectacle with a meaning almost unimaginable to its source—there is talk of miracles, angels flying in the streets, though the speaker thinks he saw some pretty mundane machinery behind it all. But here, unlike in his other, more “introspective” songs about the public eye, Oberst is game—he wants to believe in the miracle, even if it means accepting the public projection of him, even if it means drowning the needy, pathetic “this is who I am” of Fevers and Mirrors in a hotel bathtub somewhere across the ocean.
What makes the song so exhilarating is its radical outward focus. Oberst is not interested here in the changes wrought by fame on the inner self—he is not much interested at all in the inner self, whose ambiguous value (“a cheap watch or locket”) was such a central theme in Fevers. What he is interested in, apparently, is the end of the world. Which is to say—because the two amount to almost the same thing in his symbolism—he is interested in ecstasy, in getting out of himself. The apocalypse crops up pretty frequently in Bright Eyes albums, usually implying both a short-circuiting of the self (transformation as death, again) and a quasi-mystical union with all people and all things (mortality—including the sped-up mortalities of a reactionary government—being what we all have in common). The fact that the symbol doesn’t gather momentum until the more optimistic songs of the Lifted era seems telling in itself, as if Oberst had required the outside world to sit up and take notice of him before he could see it, even in the overlurid light of destruction.
In answering the questions posed by the earlier song, in living out its tentative fantasies in full colour, “From a Balance Beam” cancels out the earlier song, even as it complements and deepens its meaning. The two songs say just about the same thing, even though the one speaks the language of apathy and stasis while the other barrels forward in terrible ecstasy. They’re saying: I am watched by this thing I don’t understand but which has to do with me, something halfway between the MTV Eye and Fate. Allusions to fame and fortune in these songs have never irritated me much, in part because of this strange paranoiac mystical element. The audience seems both closer and more abstract in these songs than it ought to be—it is the very engine of transformation, yet it might not even be real, just as that vivid star-like image of the singer conceived in the public eye is both more and less real than anything that whiny kid alone in his bedroom could dream up.
It’s a lot to put on a vocal tic that as many listeners have found annoying as enlightening, but it seems that if change is possible within the airless trying-to-find-a-reason-to-move of Fevers and Mirrors, and if it’s to make sense, in the sprawling everything-at-once delirium of Lifted—if, in other words, a continuity is to be found between the narrators of these two very different albums—then it will be found here, in this quaver, this penchant for expressing any emotion, from tentative affection to I-hate-myself-and-I-want-to-die tantrums, with a tremor that collapses the two together, combining insularity and hope, the stubborn preservation of a dull solipsistic inner life and the possibility of being thrown clear of all that. And, again, none of this to suggest that my critic friends are wrong, who find the expression overwrought and the singer grating in his presumption, this overdeveloped concern with his own happiness and unhappiness. Only that there is something in that concern that seems unusually vivid, and more vivid for its presumption—the hope forced, the misery disproportionate, the crack in the voice held too long, too eager for what might come flooding through. All that unearned light.