Ranked: Bright Eyes
Apr 10, 2013
Welcome to Ranked, our recurring series in which one of our writers takes an artist’s catalogue and ranks all their official studio albums from best to worst. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Michele Yamamoto ranks Bright Eyes.
Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst began his career a teenage wunderkind in Omaha, Nebraska with strong ties to the burgeoning music scene and the band’s signature record label, Saddle Creek. Oberst popped up here and there as a solo artist, with a backing band, with a different backing band, playing in a friend’s band. As such, it’s difficult to trace every contribution made by Oberst, but undoubtedly he is best-known for his work as Bright Eyes, which is essentially Oberst with a rotating lineup of musicians that eventually formed a solid core with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott.
From wunderkind to the next Dylan to something completely different, Bright Eyes has purportedly concluded its run with 2011’s The People’s Key (the last of eight original albums, all on Omaha’s Saddle Creek). And while it’s ideal to hear the progression through the years chronologically, here are Bright Eyes’ major original releases ranked from most essential to least.
[Omitted but Noteworthy: A Christmas Album (2002), Noise Floor (Rarities: 1998-2005) (2006), and truthfully, all of the EPs released]
Words by Michele Yamamoto
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
When Lifted… arrived in 2002, it seemed like a masterpiece. It was grandiose and honest in a way that is hard to explain (though I did try in my undergraduate thesis). It was a real arrival for Bright Eyes after years of independent success, but 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was when Bright Eyes truly hit its songwriting stride. Aside from the fact that Oberst and Co.’s first high-profile guest, Emmylou Harris, appeared on several tracks, the album delivers from start to finish. The fat had been trimmed from the emotional and structural excess of Oberst’s younger days without the loss of gravity. The lyrics are clever and poignant as ever, and each song on the album is memorable, well-crafted, and can easily stand on its own. With each layer of sound, lyrics, composition, and collaboration, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning attains clarity and composure.
Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Lifted… marked the pinnacle of the early Bright Eyes moment and, as the music makes clear, Oberst was keen to its importance as a breakthrough. Every Bright Eyes record has an opening track that sets the stage for the album to come, and with Lifted…, we go on a car ride with a man and a woman (Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis of then-Saddle Creek band Rilo Kiley). Lewis sings along with “The Big Picture,” which is framed initially as diegetic sound—a song she’s chosen to play for the ride—at one point quieting Sennett to hear it. And the entire album, from packaging to transitions, alludes to grand storytelling and is rife with references to the band’s increasing public profile. Producer and musician Mike Mogis, who is the real second member to Oberst, created a signature sound for the album that seems to exist on the tip of a record needle—a warm and insulated world where Oberst’s musical bombast can flourish. Lifted… is at once sprawling, orchestral, and intimate, with that signature over-indulgence of Bright Eyes’ earlier phase, focusing on the overall experience rather than the individual tracks.
Fevers and Mirrors
Before going over the top with Lifted…, Fevers and Mirrors was exactly what the indie scene needed. It was youthful, experimental, and charming with, well …songs. Oberst really settled into his quirky vocal rhythms, which is to say that it seems like he wrote to suit the words. And the words were typically emotional and lush with visual imagery (“At the center of the world, there’s a statue of a girl/She is sitting near a well with a bucket bare and dry”).
With arguably the act’s most beautifully crafted album opener, Cassadaga marked a turn toward the mystical. Perhaps it was the country and folk influences that imbued earlier releases with a neutral Americana or even Christian tone. Whatever the case, Cassadaga maintains its “American” connection but follows different threads in the quilt. Named after a spiritualist community in Florida, the album references a recovery on a beach in California, tints its violin with folk technique, and stirs a melting pot of influences from coast to coast—an experience of transience that effectively pulls Bright Eyes out of the Midwest and into something bigger.
Letting Off the Happiness
Still rough around the edges, but worlds away from its first release, Bright Eyes’ sophomore release introduces Mike Mogis as a major collaborator, which becomes the standard from this point forward. Released just after Oberst turned 18, but recorded mostly while he was a 17-year-old, this release is edited down to an elite 10 songs (half the number on the previous release, A Collection), including “June on the West Coast,” which introduces his country and folk influence. Part of the young Oberst’s charm was his ability to write provocative and mature lyrics that seemed to demonstrate a complete knowledge of love, sex, and loss, and this release plays young and wise at the same time.
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
The counterpart to I’m Wide Awake boasts the same level of songwriting proficiency with a decidedly more digital (obviously) element to it. Though it is more surreal and beat-driven, its arcs and emotional sensibilities are still palpable. Bright Eyes’ first big move with shimmering digital effects still manages to provide barnburners such as the growth of “Hit the Switch,” or the anthemic “I Believe in Symmetry,” while closer “Easy/Lucky/Free” (anthemic in its own right) leaves us with Oberst shouting as the track decays and cuts out.
A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997
The birth of Bright Eyes and the only release with just Oberst. When he penned the material for this 20-track debut, he was in high school, and though his age comes through clearly even in comparison to Letting Off the Happiness and the production is abysmal, the strength of the material is hard to miss. His willingness to indulge and then overindulge in emotion is admirable and even experimental when tracks like “Saturday As Usual” seem to break down entirely before being pulled back together with a resolute and dynamic “fucked.” Even now, the complexity of the songs is pleasantly surprising.
The People’s Key
The People’s Key completes Bright Eyes’ shift to the mystical, and as result, the lyrics are undeniably stuffed full of poetry while lacking the emotional intensity of the younger Bright Eyes. No doubt, the songs sound full, and many of them stick on first listen, but it almost reads as too glossy. This is not a notch against the enjoyability of the album. It’s simply the least compelling offering from a strong back catalog.