Conor Oberst has spent the better part of the last decade trying to break out of a box...or, a lonely, teenage bedroom. It's the place he sourced inspiration for his earliest albums... Letting off the Happiness, Fevers and Mirrors, in some cases laying down unpolished tunes to his four-track, calling it a day, and sending them out into the world for love. And boy did his fans love, myself included.
Since that time, Oberst has taken creative exception with this lonely, embattled, and mellow dramatic aesthetic, relying on wall of sound approaches (Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear To the Ground), dueling genres (the electro pop preferences of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn vs. the quant, acoustic approach of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning), and a commitment to more polished, Americana flourishes (Cassadaga). The last four years have seen Oberst trading Bright Eyes for "solo" albums and super groups — perhaps another buck against the public's creative expectations of him.
Now it seems his return to Bright Eyes is more of a finale, as his recent album The People's Key is promised to be the last under his most beloved musical moniker...which suggests his performance at Radio City Music Hall last week was something special, something to be savored and then neatly tucked away in an easy nostalgic place to visit from time to time.
For some, it was, as an enthusiastic reception greeted Oberst and his band. Under a glittery backdrop of LED technetronics, roaming spotlights, and a pair of looming, shell like canopies, Bright Eyes paired new wave inspired riffs ("Jejune Stars", "Shell Games") and hypnotic trances ("Approximate Sunlight") from The People's Key, with smidgeons of his past, including Lifted's "Bowl of Oranges", I'm Wide Awake's "We Are Nowhere and It's Now", and Fever's "Something Vague" for a neatly buttoned up set that referenced all corners of his storied career.
Yet as Oberst's creations swirled about under the golden dome of Radio City Music Hall, something seemed lost...at least to these ears. See, Bright Eyes is an artist I can't help associating with vulnerability, intimacy, and a healthy dose of unchecked emotion. I suppose it stems back to that box, the one I am obviously guilty of imprisoning his songs in. That's just Bright Eyes, or the Bright Eyes that I hold near and dear to me. With such a nostalgic fire fueling my appetite for the show, such qualities seemed too hard to find at Radio City. So the connection everyone around me seemed to be having, to the concert, the finale — was lost. So while most probably tucked away this moment, I'm choosing some of his recordings to best remember Bright Eyes by, wishing Oberst the best in whatever lies ahead.