Everyone my age had their Bright Eyes period. Now, almost a decade and a half since Bright Eyes released their initial compilation, 11 years after a messy breakup (natch) led me to Fevers and Mirrors and 10 since the There Is No Beginning To The Story EP officially catapulted the band and principal member Conor Oberst onto a more bombastic stage, Saddle Creek has re-released their first six albums on vinyl. Done straight with no additional recordings, the reissues themselves are not exceptional. And in fact technically this isn’t the first time these albums have been reissued, given that all but There Is No Beginning were included in a vinyl box set put out in ‘03. Rather, they provide poignant recollections of Oberst in ovum, when rickety, countrified rhythms grappled with brash arrangements and Oberst’s characteristic, darkly impassioned delivery.
Released first in March of this year, A Collection Of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 and Oh Holy Fools are the weakest of the bundle of six. The former, put out in 1998, has all the messy irreverence and guttural vocals of later Bright Eyes work with only the promise of more satisfying melodic accompaniment (such as on “The Awful Sweetness of Escaping Sweat”). Everywhere on the album, Oberst’s turns conjure to mind the sort of blackened scrawl you’d expect a high school freshman to deliver in what he believes is his best Baudelaire or Bukowski. “Saturday As Usual” grates; the reel-to-reel stomp of “I Watched You Taking Off” inches toward something greater, as does “A Few Minutes On Friday” – an attempt at the scaled-up sound of future output. Whereas A Collection of Songs is uneven, however, Oh Holy Fools is largely unexciting (to borrow a lyric from another record, “There is this boredom/ That drowns everything”). The tracks languish, meander and otherwise lack forward motion.
Bright Eyes’ debut LP, Letting Off The Happiness was where everything coalesced for the first time: the overwrought lyrics, the emotive straining, his affinity for tossed-off lines and letting imbalanced compulsions run songs haphazardly into the sea. It represented, in a way, the broken sweat that heralded the later fever dream, or a conscious first step out of the darkened miasma into a more controlled, infrequently-ragged moroseness. A tipped, capsized ship of a record, Letting Off The Happiness gave a hint (as on the wild, shambling “Pull My Hair”) as to the dialectic at work between Bright Eyes releases – perfect, obvious examples of this being the future pair of aesthetic opposites, 2004’s Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Diversionary strands are subsequently followed, with the barest textures sneaking onto “Padraic My Prince,” the appearance of pedal steel (Oberst’s bandmate and fellow Monster of Folk Mike Mogis’) on “The Difference In The Shades” and the warble and breeze, like a Daniel Johnston miniature, of “June On The West Coast.” And twisted opener “If Winter Ends” still holds Bright Eyes at their skittering, hoarse best – drunk and howling. On the Every Day and Every Night EP, Son, Ambulance’s Joe Knapp pairs with Oberst on the slow-rising “A Line Allows Progress, A Circle Does Not,” while Oberst’s energetic waver on “A Perfect Sonnet” prefigures the effervescent folk oddities of the Dodos or Spinto Band.
So what of Fevers and Mirrors? By the album’s release in 2000, Bright Eyes had shed almost wholly the lo-fi intimacy so many outfits before and after similarly doffed following initial releases (even Oberst’s sometime collaborators M. Ward and Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal). Along with a smoother production sheen, the band also opted for more tightly-controlled arrangements, lyrics hung heavy (you could say heavy-handedly) with recurrent motifs and a pervasive sense of unabashed self-absorption, verging on solipsism. The result is cramped and insular, but open-ended and extraordinary – evoking a singular state of being and feeling that is monomaniacal in scope but wildly divergent in form. It slithers through the sullen and surly “Arienette,” the implacably, intensely excitable “The Calendar Hung Itself” and “Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh.” All have punch; all fight admirably for the album to retain its former, gritty luster. “An Attempt To Tip The Scales” and “A Song To Pass The Time” are perhaps, however, the album’s crowning achievements, the turn in tone from rueful to gentle resignation that the back half of Fevers and Mirrors never foreshadows. And the final EP of the reissues bundle, There Is No Beginning To The Story, affords a glimpse at the liquid bombast of Lifted, Fevers And Mirrors’ successor, beginning with that latter album’s opener, the exceptional “From A Balance Beam.”
Although, as Oberst sings in “June On The West Coast,” he’s today still slinging “sad and simple chords,” “still shaking from those secrets that we’re told,” Letting Off The Happiness and Fevers and Mirrors are probably the closest Oberst (and Bright Eyes) has come to apotheosis so far in his career, and the EPs reissued alongside them allow the listener to track Bright Eyes’ progress on that path. Say what you must of everything that has followed in the last decade, it’s inarguable that Oberst has felt no qualms – and indeed derived much of his very earliest success – from, as “Conor Oberst” puts it in the fake interview appended to Fevers and Mirrors’ “An Attempt To Tip The Scales,” whispering all his darkest secrets into the microphone.