Age has its privilege. Wizening away here on the wrong side of 30, I’m totally free not to hate Conor Oberst. When, some 10 to 15 years back, I huffily interpreted the lyrical excesses of doomed and gorgeous boypoets as assaults upon my own earthier yet misunderstood sensibility (in other words, when my personal stake in policing the lusts of scenegirl cuties was greater), I’d have cackled at the Sting-unworthy “So you nurse your love/Like a wounded dove/In the covered cage of night.” Now I just want to hug the kid spindling that simile.
I’m not alone among the aged. After a decade of nurturing the maternal instinct in cardigan-clad college radio sweethearts, Oberst now renders their dads avuncular. And don’t he just know it. However viscerally Conor hates Bush, rubbing shoulders with Stipe and Springsteen on the Vote for Change tour was savvy. Already New Dylan-imated in the Times magazine, currently playing schmancy concert halls, inevitably to endure stultifying discussions about “the creative process” with Terry Gross, he now cements his status as youth culture’s apostle to the middlebrow with I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, a handsome channel 13 complimentary tote bag of an album that polishes his image as the fantasy rebellious son who hangs at socialist bookstores and swipes your Gram Parsons records.
Released simultaneously with the broodier “electronic” Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the “acoustic” Wide Awake is Conor in voice-of-a-generation mode, with Emmylou croaking harmony to provide bearings for the Quality Rock crowd. Though hardly homogenized, past indulgences have grown stately: Dylan-cribbed verse-verse-verse structures unroll rather than stagger; ungainly “Hey, my roommate’s girlfriend has a French horn!” squawks fade into distant fanfares. And throughout Conor contextualizes leftover adolescent death fixation amid the carnal stench of current events: dissolving a protest march into slow motion on “Old Soul Song,” deconstructing pacifist wisdom even as he weaves it into the everyday on “Land Locked Blues,” or just obliquely bleating “When you’re asked to fight a war that’s nothing/It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win.”
But with “folk” redefined among those in the know as kiddies making zoo noises or as harp-happy elfinkind, caustic earnestness can sound just too too Ani. And so the beat-conscious Digital Ash is partly Conor Postal Servicing younger fans. Sometimes, though, it’s the electro-goth Cure record Trent Reznor thankfully never produced. And sometimes it’s a morose Rain Dogs: The Early Years, featuring Nick Zinner as Bob Quine. And consistently it centers around the admission “I’m thinking of quitting drinking again.” On both discs, Oberst seems wedged between a spirituality he fears will cure his restlessness and a drunkenness he’s too smart to romanticize. The wistful misery of Wide Awake offers more balanced insight (“And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares/ Why do you say it like you’re right”), yet the abject misery of Digital Ash feels more lived in. “Hit the Switch” and “Devil in the Details” are as psychologically acute as any dramatizations of alcoholic self-recrimination I’ve heard in seven years of 12-stepping. More importantly, the desperate rationalizations with which Oberst rallies his way out of his despair sound just as familiar.
Up against the carefully realized Wide Awake, Digital Ash is a mess, and not just sonically. The almost classically balanced stanzas of “Lua,” from the former, freeze an unhappy love in stark relief. In contrast, the gawky “Theme From Piñata,” from the latter, leads with “I wish I had a parachute ’cause I’m falling bad for you.” And before you can puke, he cornily explains the title: There’s “something sweet” within his “shell” if you give him a whack. But though I’m sympathetic to both angles, in the end I’m slightly more partial to the mess. Oberst’s persona rings truer as work in progress; his self-pity simply proves that his stores of empathy are so boundless he can even lavish some on himself. If most sad sacks wallow, Conor’s more escape artist, wriggling out of despair toward some ripe, elusive epiphany he clumsily shoehorns into his inadequate romantic vocabulary.
My resistance to the autobiographical fallacy prevents me from wondering under what conditions he’s done his research on melancholy, though my avuncular drive insists on pointing out that drunks age poorly, if at all, blahblahblah. I hope he realizes Dylan Thomas was regularly called an asshole and that someday he’ll be dignified and old. But though I wish him the best personally, as far as art goes, his ugliness strikes me as more instructive to us old folks than his heroism. Hearing Conor re-enact the raw unfolding of poetic suckiness that is post-adolescence hammers home the real privilege of age: I’m free not to hate Conor Oberst because I’m free not to want to be Conor Oberst.
I still think the Arcade Fire are full of shit though.
Bright Eyes plays Town Hall January 25, 26, and 27.