As clumsily as these aspects are wielded here, they become the fabric of the diegetic elements of future Bright Eyes productions.
In the early 2000s, if you knew a millennial with a band, you heard the legend of Conor Oberst. He was a digital protégé, they said, born of Garage Band and a dialup Internet connection. With palpable reverence they would wonder if he was made of flesh and blood or ones, zeroes and poetry. Having pioneered a suddenly democratized medium, rock critics called him the next Dylan, anointed as the voice of a generation. He was barely 20 years old at the time.
A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995–1997 belies the legend with its rawness. Though a veteran of the rock scene in Omaha, Nebraska, Oberst was only fifteen to seventeen years old in the timeframe the title describes. Now available for instant download, this collection should be offered only on cassette tape. It is meant to be handed to you with the words “You have to hear this.” It should be obtained at a table manned by the girlfriend of one of the band members at the back of a shitty venue. It is supposed to make a rectangular impression in a padded envelope addressed to an indie producer in Seattle or Portland. It is an artifact of a time when recording at home in the attic was not so clean a process.
Its twenty tracks tell the story of a young artist finding his voice among a trove of influences. “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” evokes Sinead O’Connor; the longing whisper of “Exaltation on a Cool, Kitchen Floor” recalls Leonard Cohen; “How Many Lights Do You See” plays like an early draft of an Elliott Smith jam and you can hear a young Michael Stipe in the earnestness of “I Watched You Taking Off.” Like a J.J. Abrams movie and his lens flare fetish, there’s an overreliance on feedback and audio filters that speaks to both youthful experimentation and a lack of confidence in Oberst’s unaltered vocals. While these practices can be daunting at times, the overall effort has to be respected. The aforementioned tracks are among the most successful on the album. Add “Saturday as Usual”—one of the great songs about a lonely Saturday night—and the quiet heartbreak of “Lila” and the seeds of Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted are evident.
As lo-fi as the production of A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995–1997 is, Oberst still played with every tool at his disposal during the recording process. Sound collages and ambient voices disrupt the collection and at times overwhelm it. As clumsily as these aspects are wielded here, they become the fabric of the diegetic elements of future Bright Eyes productions. The whole collection plays like the artist exploring the form of the concept album and throwing everything into it to see what sticks.
Ultimately, the words and emotions are the great strength of the collection. At times, Oberst overplays the emotion, reaching for vocal heights he doesn’t have to or has yet to master. This is his origin story to be revisited on occasion. Its most impressive aspect is that at time in life when most of us are destitute of expression, Conor Oberst had so much to say.