All over the place musically, in the best way possible.
If Conor Oberst’s first Bright Eyes album A Collection of Songs… served as an experiment in songwriting and an exercise in finding his voice as a writer and musician, then his second album, Letting Off the Happiness, is where he began to refine his craft and style. Along with an evolving style, the band is starting to pick up members, and most important among them was fellow Omaha native Mike Mogis. Mogis, a multi-instrumentalist and prolific producer, would later become an integral part of the Bright Eyes sound and the evolving Omaha indie scene.
What becomes evident as soon as you put on this album is its emotional depth and power. Though many of the tropes Oberst developed in his first release are found on his second, there is an untouchable spark of angry despair that begins to develop on Letting Off the Happiness. This is one of the more boozy and angry Bright Eyes albums. Songs undulate between misanthropic ballads of loss and frenetic hymns of frustration. But holding them together is Oberst’s raw style punctuated by his unique, palpably sad voice seemingly always on the verge of either tears or a scream.
In many ways, when you look back on an album in the lens of history, or in light of the artist’s total canon, there is a desire to link everything together or find a narrative that connects albums. Yes, the sound that Oberst began to perfect on Letting Off the Happiness is found throughout his career. (Or at least until I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, in the opinion of this reviewer.) But, in doing that, one can forget how groundbreaking some records are. Letting Off the Happiness is a wholly unique record for 1998. It prefigured indie rock, and, in many ways, set the standard for what indie rock was in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s.
It’s a record that is all over the place musically, in the best way possible; it touches on every register and plays with multiple musical styles. It’s opening track, “If Winter Ends,” is a mixture of Oberst’s frantic guitar strumming and semi-screaming vocals with an ambient undertone. From there, you move to the hopeless and despondent “Padraic My Prince.” But what makes this album special, more than anything, is the juxtaposition between songs. Take, for example, the songs “Touch,” “June on the West Coast” and “Pull My Hair.” The first relies heavily on intricate synth accompaniment, the next is a stripped down acoustic song and the last an electric guitar-laden track that feels like a shoegaze cover of a Bright Eyes song. This is just one example, but when you listen to the album as a whole, you see the beauty in the choreographed cacophony of styles, emotions and sounds.
Without a doubt this is the record that created the Bright Eyes sound. It was groundbreaking not just for the time, but for Oberst as an artist. It is where we begin the see the genius behind his songwriting and his ability to write in a multitude of styles while maintaining a stylistic whole.
It is a classic in the Conor Oberst oeuvre because of its depth and its raw, undiluted feelings.