By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In the great Bright Eyes biopic—Gifted, or The Ego Is at Full Boil, Keep Your Head Outta Your Ass—that will sweep the Oscars in 2015, the role of Conor Oberst will be masterfully portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Spry, wiry, pint-sized, bright-eyed and supremely talented, yet vain, mercurial, insolent, inelegant, intermittently insufferable. A lovable yet punchable prima donna at war with the unreasonable expectations born of his own vast potential.
Also, occasionally, a douchebag. This man needs a hug, and a kick in the taco.
Compare him to Bob Dylan again, and I will personally put your butt in a sling. I am not using a literary device. It's unclear where this journalistic tripe--parroted ad nauseam in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Spin, The New York Times, etc. --began, or why. Perhaps it's Oberst's verbosity, birthing songs that, on the written page, rival apartment leases in matters of size and density. Perhaps it's his newfound political fervor, locking arms on the Bush-bashing Vote for Change concert circuit with the likes of Michael Stipe and Bruce Springsteen. Or perhaps it's his recent dual-album release (the old Guns N' Roses trick) pairing the spare, singer-songwriterly I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning with the wanky "Conor Goes Electric" experimentation of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
Or, based on his recent stage antics, maybe it's just because Oberst has grown increasingly surly, and his fans increasingly cloying.
"I'm in love with you, Conor!" screamed a girl at a recent Berkeley Community Theater show.
"This song's called 'I Must Belong Somewhere,'" Conor mumbles onstage.
There's a fundamental disconnect here. From the moment the house lights fell, hoots of unmitigated lust filled the theater, reducing a monstrous (and monstrously conflicted) songwriting talent to a Rick Springfield doofus. It doesn't make sense. Most rock stars who inspire such sex-crazed devotion are either libidinous Smoove B types (Usher), harmless boy-next-door cutie-pies (the Monkees) or "Bad Boys" (Mötley Crüe). Conor meets none of these criteria: His onstage persona is deliberately somber, distracted, uncertain, vaguely hostile. He is clearly not enjoying himself, and certainly not enjoying our company.
He's a world-class brooder, ladies. What's the attraction? Clearly you are dreaming of neither long romantic walks on the beach nor degrading 90-second tour-bus assaults. Perhaps you'd like to carry him home in your arms, wrap him in a coupla afghans, spoon-feed him clam chowder and slowly nurse him back to health and/or a positive, sunny demeanor.
Sullen = sexy? Lock up your daughters' nurturing instincts.
But we're digressing, because "I Must Belong Somewhere"--a new tune that alternately appears on some Internet outposts as "Everything Must Belong Somewhere"--is absolutely fabulous, and justifies Oberst's lyrical loquaciousness.
Leave the old town drunk on his wooden stool
Leave the autumn leaves in the swimming pool
Leave the poor black child in his crumbling school today
Leave the novelist in his daydream tune
Leave the scientist in his Rubik's Cube
Let true genius in the padded room remain
The next verse has a line about cauliflower that somehow doesn't sound ridiculous. No one's touching this dude lyrically, but that "poor black child" line, a touch too Sally Struthers, underscores the way his leftist fervor and melodrama are transforming him into a hard-headed, heavy-handed whiner.
For example, the Berkeley show's stage banter--a few thank-you grunts and a terse acknowledgment as the giddy crowd sang "Happy Birthday" (he's 25)--paled in comparison with his well-publicized Fort Worth tirade: "I don't know if you know this, but I hate your [expletive] state," he howled, according to the demure Dallas Morning News. "I'd put a [expletive] gun to my head before I'd live in your state...If you came to this show tonight, you're not a normal Texan. If you were a normal Texan, you'd probably be roping steers and raping Indians."
Nice stereotyping, Tex. In Berkeley, evidently, Oberst felt far more in his political element, introducing his climactic protest song "When the President Talks to God" by noting that it's a tough sell in some parts of the country, but not here. He is mistaken. It's a tough sell here, too, because the tune is awful, slinging 20-pound ham-handed poetry as Oberst's voice attempts to grow in fury and intensity but instead gets only more shrill and histrionic. "Does the president smell his own bullshit/When the president talks to God?" goes the shrieking climax.
Look. George W. is not welcome in this writer's official fantasy baseball league, but neither are emotionally tone-deaf anger-balladeers whose outlandish caricatures only fortify Bush's supporters and make fence-sitters wince. Next time you're playin' foosball with Springsteen, ask the Boss and he'll tell ya: The most resonant political anthems are 250 parts eloquence and compassion to one part blind, seething rage.
This wankery is especially repellent given that Oberst has monster talent, and a monster perch from which to flaunt it. Watching a six-piece band of people, all apparently under 30, command a stage primarily reserved for the Neil Youngs and David Bowies of the world is tremendously inspiring, even if they sometimes over-rely on country-rock clichés (oh, those train songs) and trumpet solos. And onstage his best tunes mingle epic, "We Are the World"-style anthems ("Landlocked Blues") with quiet moments of romantic devastation ("Lua"). The possibilities for this kid are unreal, so long as he avoids political screeds and self- (not to mention crowd-) loathing antics.
The Michael Moores and smitten coeds of the world don't understand your true potential, Conor. Come home with us instead. We'll warm you up, get some soup in you, turn that frown upside... Ah, now I'm starting to see the appeal.