Its power comes from Oberst’s ability to control and transmit the various sides of manic depression, dejection and hopelessness.
One of the hardest parts about revisiting albums like Fevers and Mirrors is divorcing yourself from the nostalgia you have for them. There is a tendency to look back, with fond memories, at the time you spent driving to school, or just around, blasting the same songs repeatedly, hoping that it would bring some sort of clarity. We all have music that defines certain portions of our lives, and some albums become totems for an era. Certainly, Bright Eyes is one of those bands, along with many others, that defines the indie/emo/alt-country scene of the early 2000s. And no album has become as emblematic and influential as Oberst’s 2000 release Fevers and Mirrors.
When it was released, Fevers and Mirrors was more or less panned by Pitchfork, and most other reviewers didn’t know exactly what to make of it. Admittedly, it’s a tough album to get into at first if you don’t have the temperament for Oberst’s depressed crooning or an ear for its musical play and experimentation. Even if you were familiar with his previous work, Fevers and Mirrors was a slight departure from the intimate feeling he worked on before. It’s a more luscious, grandiose record that was the concept album that people didn’t know they needed. Ultimately, in the scope of history, Fevers and Mirrors has carved out a unique space where it exists outside the world of the critic and in the hearts of everyone who heard it exactly when they needed to.
The album’s opening track, “A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever, and a Necklace,” introduces us to Oberst’s tortured world full of symbolic metaphors and despondent desperation. Oberst’s crackled voice warbles over arpeggiated chords as he paints a desperate picture of his struggles with depression and drugs. The song is lyrically fierce and poetic and introduces us to a symbol that will weave in and out of the entire album: dreams.
The entire album feels like a dream, or a kind of waking; a haunted form of sleepwalking where everything around Oberst has importance and deep meaning. The lyrics and tone are soaked in sordid memories and melancholic listlessness. He winds his way through his failures and lost loves, his long nights and too soon mornings.
One aspect of Oberst’s work that is often overlooked is his beautiful lyricism. Each song reads like a poem, and, in the case of Fevers and Mirrors, these poems fold back on themselves, and repeated images are magnified with each mention. This repetition feels like an incantation at times. As if Oberst is trying expel some demon or, at the very least, trying to define it. And, in that pursuit, the album’s lyrics and music constantly fluctuate between control and chaos.
“Something Vague,” for instance, is a balanced and relatively straightforward track (and one that would become a Bright Eyes classic). But then there is the manic and feverish “When the Curious Girl Realizes She’s Under Glass.” Though some songs work individually, the album really works best when listened to straight through because many of the tracks feature through lines and background noise that seamlessly shift songs from one to the next.
But for how serious some of the imagery and messages are in the album, it’s also very self-aware. At the end of penultimate track, “An Attempt to Tip the Scales,” there is a fake interview that pokes fun of Oberst and interviews in general. The fake interview asks the fake Oberst about the meaning of some of his images, his childhood and the babies in bathtubs (a reference to “Padraic My Prince” from Letting Off the Happiness). Oberst is expectedly obtuse, and the whole ordeal lightens the mood and takes a swing at critics and meaning. And the last track, “A Song to Pass the Time,” is a lighthearted admission to the power of music to help us just get by. It’s a perfect end to a serious album and sends a necessary consolatory message to everyone listening.
Sometimes we want to measure an album’s worth by how it controls itself or how it works within the conceptual parameters it sets for itself. But Fevers and Mirrors plays with its own parameters, shifting and exploding across a varied sonic and emotional landscape. Its power comes from Oberst’s ability to control and transmit the various sides of manic depression, dejection and hopelessness. It’s an album that holds a special place in the hearts of many depressed high schoolers of a certain generation, and one that needs to be dug up every once in a while when you need a bit of a certain kind of