The first and last time I saw Omaha, I was struck by the tremendous gray of the place. The town's sky, its streets, its buildings, even the skin of the townsfolk themselves all seemed to be cast in this otherworldly shade of slate. Granted it was winter, and there wasn't much color to be found anywhere on the plains. Still, this was a city, and even during the bleakest season, a city should supply some color.
After checking into a quaint Old Town hotel on Dodge Street and noting the sense of cowboys and carpetbaggers that still seemed to permeate the inn, I rambled around downtown, hitting bar after bar until at last I began to lose sight of the city's storybook past and instead succumbed to the gray of it all. With each stop I became more morose and less inclined even to lift my eyes away from the drink in front of me. If the town affected me so despairingly after only an hour or so, imagine what it might do to its residents.
And imagine what it might have done to a man named Conor Oberst, for it was against such a backdrop that he was raised — and where he arose to become the man with the gray-flannel songbook. His history is well documented: Born to an executive at Mutual of Omaha and an elementary school principal, the precocious Oberst was reportedly strumming a guitar and writing songs at age 10. By 13 he was already playing in bands and recording on a four-track in his parents' basement.
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: With the Felice Brothers and Rig 1. Tuesday, November 18. Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $24.99. All ages. 954-564-1074, www.cultureroom.net
In 1993, at age 14, Oberst released his cassette-only debut, Water, on an imprint called Lumberjack Records. By '98 there'd be other solo outings (Here's to Special Treatment, The Soundtrack to My Movie) and other bands (Norman Bailer, Commander Venus), and Lumberjack would be rechristened as the label Saddle Creek. Fast-forward a couple of years — Norman Bailer would become The Faint, Commander Venus would become Cursive, and Conor Oberst would form the beatific band known as Bright Eyes.
Bright Eyes' first release, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, was, as its title suggests, basically a bundle of tunes Oberst had stockpiled from his basement sessions. And though it was sonically all over the map, and pretty much critically dismissed, the LP showed a man as determinably proficient as he was manically prolific. The collection also cleared Oberst's head and soul for the work that was to come — and the fame that was eventually to follow. In quick succession came Letting off the Happiness ('98), Every Day and Every Night ('99), and Fevers and Mirrors ('00), at the time Bright Eyes' most accomplished work.
But the world didn't really begin to see Bright Eyes for what it was until 2002's Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, an album that made many best-of-year lists and featured the haunting lullaby of a ballad "Lover I Don't Have to Love." It's a terribly touching track, bleak and hopeful as one of those Nebraska winter mornings.
That was the year when Conor became a sensation. Critics stopped criticizing and decided almost en masse to rejoice. Joe Levy, writing in the Village Voice, claimed if you "give [Lifted] a chance, it will take you backward to a time when you believed in something that you don't believe in anymore." And Blender said, "the Ritalin generation may have found its Bob Dylan."
The chorus of cheers emboldened Oberst and his Bright Eyes, and in 2004 they came back with not one but two LPs: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Flipsides of Oberst's ever-manic mind, the double-shot was as much a surprise as it was a delight for fans and critics alike. Morning's "Lua," and Digital's "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" simultaneously topped Billboard's Hot Singles chart, and the ink spilled positively positive all over the map.
Beyond the sales and accolades, though, was the remarkable scope that both of Bright Eyes' releases revealed, a scope that stretched from the Dylanesque musings for which Oberst was best known (Morning) to an electronic hybrid that could be equated with Sir Bob's going electric at Newport. The turn wasn't as much an about-face as it was a move forward. Sure, the longing, isolation, and mire of love lost were present in both albums. But Digital flipped the script, humanized the machines, and left the voice near-cold and out in the wind.
Almost. When you're listening to anything Oberst does, there's no getting his voice out of your head. Sometimes it's a whisper ("Today Is the First Day"); other times it's singsong ("Four Winds"). It can come as a roar (Desaparecidos' "Hole in One"), a rant ("When the Government Talks to God"), or an anthem that comprises all of the above and then some ("Easy/Lucky/Free"). But no matter how his voice comes, it comes true and blue and immediate, reaching deep into the recesses most of us keep to ourselves.
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And nowhere is that gift of intimacy more apparent than with the recently released solo album Conor Oberst, his first stand-alone since 1996's split seven-inch Kill the Monster Before It Eats Baby. Recorded earlier this year in a villa on the outskirts of the mountainside town of Tepoztlán, Mexico, a place, according to the press release, "known for Aztec magic and extraterrestrial sightings," Conor Oberst is about as close as one can come to crying without actually resorting to tears. That's not to say it's sad, but it's astonishingly somber, especially considering the success Oberst has achieved.
Perhaps that's why the LP is so majestically maudlin, as Oberst sang on Morning's perfectly poignant "Poison Oak" — "the sound of loneliness makes me happier." And if that's the case here, he's at his happiest yet. Listen to "Eagle on a Pole" and its isolation, "Cape Canaveral" and its snapshot longing, and "Moab," with its indeterminate belief that the road will heal everything. There were hints of this joyous woe in Bright Eyes' last outing, 2007's Cassadaga, especially in the quietly anthemic "If the Brakeman Comes My Way." But here the flower has wilted in full bloom.
And that is the album's essential beauty. Like Leonard Cohen's infamous line about there being a crack in everything and "that's how the light gets in," Conor Oberst reveals the happiness of heartbreak, the loveliness of loss, and the utter warmth of solitude. Oh, it's not all "woe is me," but when it is, it's terrific.
Which brings me back to Omaha and its slate-gray composition. No one could stand such a shade without seeing in it something other than its surface — a crack, if you will, that brings about illumination — and no one could have lived through such solace without finding in it some beauty. Conor Oberst might now call New York his home, but in his blood, bones, heart, and soul runs the color of the town from which he came. To me it was simply gray; to Oberst it is breathtaking.