Fevers and Mirrors
May 28, 2012 Web Exclusive
The year 2000, when Bright Eyes' Fevers and Mirrors was initially released, was, in retrospect, the final vestige of an era of mystery, soon to be supplanted by Internet message board inundation and Twitter ubiquity. It was the time just before every shitty show from your favorite flavor-of-the-month artist was captured on YouTube and subsequently greeted with an absurd level of frenzied hyperbole. Contemporaneous with this time, no less an authority than Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, fresh off his band's breakup and the subsequent formation of The Jicks, anointed Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst as "toy Nick Cave on truth serum" on his Internet diary during his band's short run of shows with Oberst and Co.
It was an apt description of the Omaha songwriter's raw nerve, contrition, and brazen self-awareness-Oberst possessed a keen grasp of when relationships had passed their expiration date and could nail with pinpoint detail the attendant agony and ecstasy. He was morbidly allergic to denial, and quick to call himself out on his own hypocrisy. This self-immolating obsession hit its apex on the homespun chamber pop brilliance captured throughout Fevers and Mirrors.
From the opening number "A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever, and a Necklace," the gauntlet is laid down for the listener-as a field recording of a young boy begging someone not to leave plays over the track's plucky gossamer balladry, Oberst urges sardonically, "Don't degrade yourself like those cowards do," alluding to and even foreshadowing the criticism that would dog him throughout his career.
"He's too 'histrionically emo.'" "What does a white upper middle class kid have to be so upset about?" These were but two in a laundry list of facile criticisms levied against Oberst that had nothing to do with his band's music. But if you bought into Oberst, as legions did, even when Bright Eyes were playing to a couple hundred kids a night in towns across the U.S., you were there with Oberst on his epic, one-of-a-kind journey, a remarkable organic ascendance from dank clubs to 5000-seat theaters.
"The Calendar Hung Itself," a bonafide Oberst classic, articulated one of the key motifs he would hone over the course of his career: a frenetic obsession with death on par with Woody Allen's infamous neurosis. This, juxtaposed with the notion that time is largely indifferent to your struggles, whether frivolous or universal, lent Oberst's work a disarming eloquence. On "Calendar," when he rails in a rapid-fire Jeff Mangum-esque spurt, "Well the clock's heart it hangs inside its open chest/With hands stretched towards the calendar hanging itself," the sheer conviction of his words render the track downright vexing, with Oberst's bleating calf vocals resonating like a religious heretic sermonizing in tongues.
"Once we're gone who's gonna care if we were ever here at all?" Oberst questions with existential angst on "An Attempt to Skip the Scales," articulating the conundrum at the heart of Bright Eyes. However, in Oberst's world—one equally suffused with wonderment and confusion-the questions without answers are the only ones worth asking. This steadfast desperation has imbued all of his work through the '00s and beyond, as he eventually turned a jaundiced eye beyond the personal and onto the political, targeting and excoriating the neo-con monsters running the post-9/11 world. But he'd never again recapture that time in 2000 and 2001 when he was singing about friends, lovers, and enemies from his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska as if they were alternately demons and angels.
A posthumous Thomas Wolfe novel was titled You Can't Go Home Again, and thankfully Oberst never even countenanced that possibility. But we, as listeners, can revisit Fevers and Mirrors in a gloriously packaged deluxe vinyl edition, a parochial record that feels like home in its cold comfort and reminds us of a time when our failed relationships felt like the end of the world, before sociopaths disguised as gentlemen in Armani suits took over and irrevocably altered the landscape of the planet.
Fevers and Mirrors evokes the dark back roads of Omaha, black crows flying past blood-red sunsets, cars that won't start in the dead of winter as you see the white clouds of your breath in the bitter cold. No, we aren't going home again either, but we're certainly more than welcome to look at these gloriously sepia-tinged photos that conjure flash-bulb memories of a time that probably seems simpler and more idyllic now than it did then. (www.conoroberst.com)
Author rating: 9/10
Average reader rating: 9/10