Review: Bright Eyes’ Early Albums, Revisisted

A Collection of Songs Written And Recorded 1995-1997
[Rating: 2.5 stars]
Letting Off The Happiness [Rating: 3 stars]
Every Day And Every Night EP [Rating: 4 stars]
Fevers And Mirrors [Rating: 4 1/2 stars]
Oh Holy Fools: The Music Of Son, Ambulance & Bright Eyes [Rating: 3 stars]
There Is No Beginning To The Story EP [Rating: 3 1/2 stars]

Before he matured into an even-tempered troubadour, Conor Oberst captured the anxieties of youth in unflinching detail on his formative albums as Bright Eyes, the first of which he began recording when he was just 15. Those formative records, which Oberst’s Saddle Creek label has reissued to vinyl this spring, are often raw and frequently histrionic, but they show that Oberst’s songwriting spark was there from the beginning. Scattered as it is, even Bright Eyes’ home-recorded debut A Collection Of Songs Written And Recorded 1995-1997 is flush with vibrant, untamable pop hooks. By 1998’s sophomore effort Letting Off The Happiness, Oberst had already begun to shape his grab bag of folk, indie-rock, acoustic punk and synthesized experiments into a cohesive vision.

Compared to its overlong predecessors, 1999’s Every Day And Every Night EP benefits from brevity. The EP is a taut five songs, almost all of which land like a swift blow to the gut. It’s not the best known or most celebrated early Bright Eyes release, but it’s the one that marks Oberst’s true arrival as a songwriter. Where his first LPs were easily sidetracked by sonic experimentation, here he put his prose front and center, letting his combustible performances carry the songs.

Bright Eyes’ landmark 2000 full-length Fevers And Mirrors dialed up the intensity even further. Oberst quivers and caterwauls his way through the record, choking on his own words. Oberst’s voice was fully realized now; he cast himself as a fallen romantic, depressed and cuckolded, screaming out at an injustice world from a cold bathroom floor. Even by emo’s standards, this was melodramatic stuff, but Oberst had the conviction and talent to pull it off – few songwriters have ever captured youthful angst with such virtuosic precision. It’s a black-hearted, sometimes unsettling record, but it’s also rich with willful contradictions and distressed beauty, and visceral as they are, there’s a poetic complexity behind Oberst’s overheated outbursts. This is his Catcher In The Rye.

Two EPs round out this set of reissues. Oh Holy Fools, a 2001 split with the middling Omaha indie-rock band Son, Ambulance, is decidedly inconsequential, but that’s part of its charm. It’s the sound of Oberst cooling down after the frenzy of Fevers And Mirrors. He still sings about emotional tragedies, but this time he does so from a safe distance. There Is No Beginning To The Story feels like even more of an outlier. A teaser for Bright Eyes’ 2002 LP, Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground, the EP is a mostly jaunty affair, with Oberst singing hopefully of rebirth and salvation “From A Balance Beam” and “We Are Free Men.” Lifted would introduce a new songwriting conundrum for Oberst: How could he continue to convey such dire emotional stakes without becoming a cheap parody of his younger self? The answer, he eventually concluded, was that he couldn’t.

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