“Painfully honest and beautiful”: Why I Love Bright Eyes

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“Painfully honest and beautiful”: Why I Love Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes Conor Oberst
Words by Michael Vince Moin

A fair warning: Mixdown contributor Michael is a big Bright Eyes fan.

A fair warning: I’m a big Bright Eyes fan (30 / M / Northcote). When I was younger, my teenage evenings were often spent listening to and deciphering the words of Conor Oberst and the accompanying arrangements of Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. Bright Eyes. If you were one of the bands’ many collaborators, odds are I listened to your entire discography. I felt deeply connected to not only Bright Eyes’ music and their surrounding circle, but what they stood for. They were irrevocable outcasts. In some songs, they sounded kind of like failure. Others sounded timelessly beautiful. They became massively successful in a graciously cool way. I have never loved a band as much. 

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January 2011. Starry-eyed, only 18 and I had just graduated high school. I took a plane from Sydney to Los Angeles. Another plane to Kansas City, followed by a Greyhound bus and I had made it to Omaha, Nebraska. Omaha is the city where Bright Eyes formed and the home of Saddle Creek Records, the label founded in part by Justin Oberst, Conor’s brother. Saddle Creek was the release vessel that guided the band to stardom. In my backpack I carried a CD with some recordings of mine from my 8 track back home. There I was, smack in the middle of the bible belt. I stumbled into the Saddle Creek shopfront where a selection of records and assorted merchandise were available to purchase from a sullen intern – at least she was in character. She told me they’re not taking demo submissions. Sorry.

Conor Oberst

I couldn’t blame her for failing to understand how far I had come to give them that god-damned CD – that I had spent my entire savings from the last year of working at a McDonald’s half a world away to get there and that it would take more than a few morose words to dampen my resolve. 

I walked around the back of the block into a car park and up a fire-escape staircase. A guy at the General Pants next door had told me that was where I’d find the Saddle Creek office. I walked slowly towards their backdoor and knocked. Justin Oberst answered. I was very nervous and shivering in the cold and stuttering and he told me that I couldn’t be here and that I should leave. His expression handed me a swift reality check. I was in over my head and I was intruding. A brief silence, and then he said that he would give the CD a listen and thanked me for traveling a long way. Within 30 seconds it was over. But I had done it. I was a kid that had traveled across the world to give my heroes what would have been their worst demo submission of the calendar month. Year. Ever. It doesn’t matter. I’ve always been proud of that. 

In many ways I understand, now, with a few years on my belt, how easy it is to be swept up in fandom, in mania and to fall really in love with a band. My actions were the product of how easy it was to love them. The year is now 2023 and it feels like the scales have finally found a way to balance out. Bright Eyes are touring Australia for the first time since late 2011 and they’re playing a show two blocks from my house. I’ve never been able to see them live. It’s going to be wonderful and you should get yourself a ticket


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In truth, I didn’t understand half of what Conor Oberst was singing about when I was a teenager. I liked his voice and his words and I liked the way the records sounded. Different. As I’ve grown, I’ve understood more and more the depth and vicissitudes of Oberst’s writing, uncovering meaning in Bright Eyes’ songs that wasn’t previously there. Even as the band took a 9 year hiatus, I grew older with the songs and as the records aged they began to feel like old friends you can rely on when you need them. Besides, the ferocity of Oberst’s output between the start of the hiatus and now is testament to his tireless attitude towards writing and recording – collaborating with countless artists including Phoebe Bridgers in their band Better Oblivion Community Center as well as releasing several fantastic solo records that in many ways form their own blazing arc aside from Bright Eyes.

Bright Eyes

But Bright Eyes are an enigma. At the turn of the century, the band’s rise to popularity was the signifier of a new age of emo and a new age of indie-rock. This was a band that borrowed their source material from a multitude of influences: whether it was Nebraska’s own Cursive, or folk heroes such as Townes van Zandt, up to the more contemporary folk-pop of Elliot Smith, or perhaps the midwest emo of American Football. The early records of Bright Eyes to the most recent album Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was have always been difficult to pinpoint sonically. I guess this contributed to Oberst being hailed as the next Bob Dylan after the release of Lifted when he was just 22. Large, sweeping symphonic arrangements of horns and strings often accompany Oberst’s trembling voice and this is particularly true on their latest record. There’s an underlying spirit of Americana present across all the records, from June on the West Coast all the way to Comet Song. While I don’t have the word count in me to tell you why every single Bright Eyes song is great, the song “Lime Tree”, the closer to Cassadega and my personal favourite, is a beautiful descriptor of a kind of precision dichotomy between ethereal arrangements and focused songwriting that Bright Eyes captures so effortlessly.

From “Letting Off The Happiness” to “The People’s Key to Down in the Weeds”, Bright Eyes are able to deliver painfully honest and beautiful songs produced in consistently left-field ways. The recently released Companion EP series offers contemporary re-imaginings of every Bright Eyes record pre-hiatus. This in itself is a gargantuan effort, and one that is really fascinating and fun to explore. A band now in their 40’s re-recording youthfully made albums that had a profound influence on the cultural landscape. It’s a testament to both their inventive musicianship and, again, to a timelessness present in the music. I’m convinced that without Bright Eyes many acts wouldn’t exist as they do today. While “First Day of My Life” is the band’s undeniable hit that placed them firmly on the radar, I love Bright Eyes because it’s when you dive beneath the surface of this band that you’ll find them to embody an ocean of committed artistry.

For Bright Eyes AU 2023 ticketing info, visit this link.