By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Conor Oberst is no aging Luddite. Like most Americans, he relies heavily on the conveniences of modern "coffeemakers, telephones, televisions, computers. Everything has a little computer in it these days."
But the 31-year-old ex-wunderkind and cornerstone of the Saddle Creek record label tells New Times via an old-fashioned landline that he's proceeding with caution. And more fear for the unfathomable innovations to come unfolds on his seventh Bright Eyes studio album, The People's Key. Much like science fiction writers Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, this narrator mixes dystopian themes and commentary on world religion into detailed, day-to-day scenes.
"I would say we're still in the infancy of our inevitable evolution toward half-human, half-computer," he says from his studio in Omaha, Nebraska. "If the 20th Century was defined by the industrial revolution, this is a technological revolution that will sooner or later become part of the human body as well."
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Yet instead of living out his admitted urges to hide in the woods, Oberst unburdens concerns, such as "a snuff film on a JumboTron for all the world to see," on record. Accompanied by voice-overs from an old mystic named Denny Brewer, frontman for psychedelic rock act Fried Ice Cream, as well as able instrumental and production support from Mike Mogis, Nathaniel Walcott, and many friends, The People's Key rustles through more of the ever-gathering digital ash in society's digital urn.
"It's about the present moment and looking forward and looking back," he explains. "I think there's some nostalgia in the record, but also excitement/terror of the future. That's a pretty common feeling for everyone living at this moment."
"Used to dream of time machines, now it's been said we're post-everything," Oberst sings in "Approximate Sunlight," a slow number pairing Great Plains twang with synthesizer underlay. This is what being the last generation to remember life before the internet sounds like.
"I can remember the first time I saw the internet," Oberst says. "I was like 12. A friend of mine's mother worked for a university, so they had just the black-and-white text internet thing, and I remember him telling me, 'Our computer's connected to all the computers in the world,' and how crazy that sounded to me. And now it's just like a given that everything's completely connected."
At the same time, embracing any sort of technological development means also acknowledging the passing of precious time and the loss of youth. For Oberst, that preteen introduction to the World Wide Web came at about the same time that his musical career was taking shape — notably with future members of Faint and Cursive in Commander Venus and several other outfits leading up to Bright Eyes's formation in the late '90s. It's hard to believe that Fevers and Mirrors, the album that arguably boosted Oberst into the public consciousness, was released over a decade ago. This fact isn't lost on him either.
"People will come up and say 'I really loved your band in high school,' " he says. "And they look like completely full-grown, middle-aged-looking people, and it's kind of funny. I see how it's possible. Those records are ten years old. But it's still a little odd."
This is coming from a guy who hasn't stopped working long enough to reflect much about what has gone on. In his pocket are triumphant Americana statements such as I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, his collaborative efforts with Jim James and M. Ward in Monsters of Folk, the punk era with Desaparecidos, and recent forays with Mystic Valley Band. Add in the Bob Dylan comparisons, magazine covers, tabloid rumors, and rallies for Barack Obama, and Oberst's well-established stardom is anything but odd. Still, an artist who has long been dealt the precocious tag is feeling his age.
"I feel like the older you get, the more tempting it is to just write everything off from this callous perspective," he says. "That's what 'Beginner's Mind' [from The People's Key] is about: trying to keep your inner child alive, because that's really something that makes life worth living. Pretty much all of society wants to kind of strangle that out of you. I guess I've been making an active effort in my life to kind of keep those parts of me intact as best I can."
For a guy used to hanging out with the older kids, and drinking them under the table, some of that strangling was undoubtedly self-induced. "I guess I did kind of adult things at probably too young of an age and grew up somewhat fast because of music and stuff," Oberst admits. "I ended up having a lot of experiences that kids my age didn't [usually] have till much later. And that whole rush to grow up or engage in these things, that was, maybe subconsciously, some kind of [desire] to grow older and deal with the world."
Unsurprisingly, the new album still carries a fair share of personal pathos. Oberst notes on "Shell Games": "I'm still angry with no reason to be," and later, "My private life is an inside joke/No one will explain it to me."