Music is overwhelming.
None of us can ever hear every single song. There are too many bands, too many albums, too many shows. It’s dizzying.
Plus, music never feels quite right when you experience it in a shallow way. If you read a book once or watch a film the one time you can safely say you’ve experienced it. Sure, you’ll probably get more out of it from reruns. But you don’t always need to keep revisiting it.
Whereas experiencing an album takes a lot more than one listen. You need to live with it a little, like wearing in leather boots until they’re soft and scuffed. Until they’re yours.
In diving deep into a single artist, in branching out into their influences and collaborators, in listening to the same albums hundreds, maybe over a thousand, times and researching the references, I have found a kind of peace. Instead of craving the new, I enjoy the consistent familiarity and the way I continue to find new meaning and depth in it.
At a certain point, the music you love ceases to be something to listen to and becomes a spine for your experiences.
It becomes the framework upon which you understand your life. It sinks into your skin. It becomes entangled with who you are to everyone else. It shapes your perceptions in little subtle ways.
It’s impossible for me to write anything about my life without references to Conor Oberst’s music slipping in because it’s something utterly integral to who I am that I cannot draw a line between what I have lived through and the music that formed part of it.
While I’ve never been a strong swimmer, as a kid I had a talent for holding my breath underwater.
In school swimming lessons, I’d grab a huge lungful of air and plunge under the surface, sometimes for a minute, until my vision began to blur and my head ached. Then I’d hold for a moment longer. Testing myself. Hovering on the fine line, before leaping to the surface, gasping for a few moments, then doing it again.
I did it because I loved the feeling of breaking the surface, bursting out into the chlorine-scented air and feeling the shock of oxygen and noise after the dark quiet of the bottom of the pool.
I loved breathing and feeling the contrast to not breathing.
That was precisely how I felt the first time I heard one of Conor Oberst’s songs. Like I was breathing at last. Like I was sucking in the music in desperate lungfuls, feeling my brain switch on in a new way.
I was about fifteen at the time. The first Bright Eyes song I ever heard was First Day of My Life, the closest thing to a hit Conor has ever written. It’s a syrupy, tender love song about meeting someone and feeling as if your life has begun again.
First Day of My Life is perhaps one of the most accessible songs in his repertoire too. Everyone gets it. Everyone can close their eyes and appreciate the sentiment. Everyone can, from the first listen, feel its emotion and relate to the gentle chorus:
This is the first day of my life;/ I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you/ But now I don’t care, I could go anywhere with you/ And I’d probably be happy.
From the first line it hit me, as it hits seemingly everyone, hard. By the time the song finished for the first time, I knew this band was special.
When I listen to that song now, it’s not about falling in love with a person. It’s about falling utterly in love with a band. I was unironically glad to be alive to hear it.
It’s a cliche to say that Conor saved your life. You hear it shouted by audience members at concerts or stuttered by interviewers.
You hear it shouted by audience members at concerts or stuttered by interviewers.
But in the most real sense, Conor’s music didn’t just save my life. It shaped it. It was my life at times. It was my lifeline. The one thing that could consistently and without fail make me want to be alive. It was the one thing that helped me feel sane.
Over the last six years, Bright Eyes has been a constant companion, always the foundation of my music taste, always my touchstone. It’s what I return to again and again, never able to stray too far without missing it. Other music usually exists as a point of comparison, or a break before revisiting an album, like sniffing coffee beans to better appreciate perfume.
I drift away just so I can come back with a fresh perspective.
Conor’s music was there all the times I wandered the streets of a new city alone — when everything is lonely, I can be my own best friend / get a coffee and the paper, have my own conversations — an infallible companion. It was there the nights I played Ruminations on repeat — closing my eyes / counting the sheep / gun in my mouth / trying to sleep — when I lived in a shitty area and let his words drown out the sounds of fights in the street outside, of police cars and screaming.
It was there the countless times his sometimes wavering voice pulled me through panic attacks, as I collapsed on the carpet somewhere trying to breathe — there are hundreds of ways to get through the day / just find one. It was there the night I ended up in the emergency room, humming the same line to nurses — temperature’s cool, blood pressure’s fine / 121 over 75 / scream if you want / no one can hear you. Through breakups and grief and moving and agonising loneliness and frustration and late nights in the office and early mornings and all night work marathons and long walks home, I kept playing the same songs.
What makes Bright Eyes special, as a band, is that overwhelming, reassuring sense that someone gets it and someone has the guts to say it. The songs are honest to the point of being excruciating. It was exactly the balm I needed as a teenager and still do sometimes.
Recently, when I labelled Bright Eyes as my favourite band to someone I’d just met, they responded “Still?” As in: Bright Eyes is a stereotypically teenage band. It’s true that as I moved out of my teenage years, I started spending more time listening to Conor’s more recent projects — The Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk, Desparacidos, Better Oblivion Community Centre. Each of Conor’s albums that have come out since I started listening to Bright Eyes marks out a different era in my life.
But I always end up missing the raw emotion of Bright Eyes. The themes in the songs, as I mapped them out, conspiracy-theorist style, on my bedroom wall one night are comforting without being repetitive.
Cigarettes and lighters. Hotels and bathtubs. The change of seasons and the fall of night or rise of the morning. Rain and sunshine. Coffee and whiskey. Heartbreak and grief. Addiction, withdrawal, relapse. Tears and sweat. Falling in and out of love. Endless journeys and movement. Fleeing, then coming home. Loneliness and longing for solitude.
The same pieces put together in new ways each time. You get used to the repeating characters. To the motifs— the yellow bird, lying in the grass — that surface again and again.
I’ve wanted to write about my deep adoration for Conor Oberst’s music, in particular his band Bright Eyes, for a while. It just felt a little self-indulgent. And the line between what comes across as heartfelt appreciation or creepy obsession can be thin at times.
I’ve never understood the drive towards possessive fixations on musicians. I have no desire to meet my heroes. On a couple of occasions when I’ve seen someone I admire in a bar or in the street, speaking to them never crossed my mind. Why should it? They don’t owe me anything. We’re strangers. I have no right to disturb them.
The way we feel about certain musicians or bands isn’t really about them as people. It’s about ourselves. It’s about the way they speak to us. The way they vocalise what’s inside us. The selfish way we get to sit back and let someone else work through our emotions. The way they seem to know us better than anyone close to us does, without the side order of shame.
On an intellectual way, we know it’s a purely para-social relationship. You know that a song makes sense to you not because the artist has some special insight into your life, but because they’re vocalising some aspect of the human condition. You know it just means your experience is not unique and that is the reassuring part.
Or, to quote a Youtube comment on an interview with Conor: he gets it.
For those who have read this far but are unacquainted with the music I’m referring to, here’s an attempt at a condensed list of some good starting points. Bear in mind that Conor’s back catalogue is so enormous that I still discover new songs from time to time and there’s a lot of variation in 8+ bands over 25 years. A substantial chunk of it isn’t even on Spotify and some I’ll probably never get to hear because it was released on cassette in tiny numbers.
I initially came up with a list of ~120 favourites and couldn’t whittle it down, so I picked a few at random:
We Are Nowhere And It’s Now — I have the name of this song tattooed on me which just about conveys how I feel about it
Poison Oak (with Dawes), 2014 — Conor is almost certainly crying in this heartfelt, wildly emotional performance and I cry every time I watch it.
Cape Canaveral, KCRW 2014 — super slowed down, glorious and intense.
Laura Laurent @ Krug Park — just beautiful and the violin is dreamy.
The Big Picture, Cardinal Sessions 2017 — raw, gritty poetry.
Thunder Road with Bruce Springsteen, 2008 — this performance is an absolute mess, Conor seems utterly overwhelmed but who wouldn’t be about performing with Springsteen? I love them both so I love this.
Spring Cleaning, 2007 — Conor doesn’t actually sing the main vocals on the album version of this so I much prefer the live rendition.
The Pearl, 2016 — haunting, magical Emmylou Harris cover.
KCRW 2014 — one of the frankest interviews around.
Bright Eyes interview (date unknown)
This post started off as an answer on Quora.