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Beginning in 1998, Oberst has released an album at the reliable pace of every two years, peppering the schedule with singles, EPs, collaborative releases and most recently a 7-LP box set. As his discography would predict it, Oberst was due to produce another album this year, the follow up to 2002's Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. But the fifth of a decade since that last album has been a busy one for Oberst, a literal wank-fest for cliquish online and print magazines. His schedule has been tight, you see.
The first time I crossed paths with Oberst, back when Monica Lewinsky wasn't a household name, I stepped through the side door of a bar called the Side Door to catch the end of a song from the newly released album, Letting Off the Happiness. In the interlude that followed the song, as the band tuned, drank and generally took a thirty second time out, Oberst peered out at the 30 or so people on the floor and looked for the face of a potential comrade. "If anyone could provide us with a place to stay tonight," Oberst announced, "that would be very nice." After a brief pause he added, "and if you happen to have any narcotics that would be a definite plus."
A few years later, after systematically turning heads with solid releases such as the Everyday and Every Night EP, Oberst expanded his Bright Eyes outfit into an orchestral tinker toy. With the release of Fevers and Mirrors, Oberst came into his own as a songwriter, harnessing the buoyant exuberance of youth and distilling it through a highly literary lyrical voice. Much in the same manner as Kurt Cobain had done a decade earlier, Oberst delivered lines about adolescent angst and isolation with a maturity that was both poetically viable and plainly spoken. More and more people began to take notice, both as Bright Eyes was packaged on strong national tours and as Oberst expanded his solo reputation from Omaha to New York and Los Angeles.
It was around the time that the Bright Eyes buzz began to grow into an audible drone - one that could be heard bubbling up through the cracks of mainstream media outlets like NME and Rolling Stone, who were blurbing about Oberst's sensitive-bad-guy persona - that I happened across the young emo rebel a second time. A band that I was on tour with had stopped in Omaha to play a basement show in a hippie/punk brownstone complex. Although the two touring bands were relatively unknown and the local band hadn't released an album, the crowd began to swell early on. With every manner of classified indie rocker, from the greaser white belts with their janitorial style jingling keys to the educated post-rockers of the Saddle Creek cartel, Omaha had come out for an ordinary show, illustrating why sons like Oberst have had such prolific success. It was a league of hipsters, and over the course of the evening, Oberst could be found slumped in a chair on the porch or in the living room, presiding over a summit of fresh-faced urban folk-punks. "That kid does so many drugs," I heard one partygoer say to another in reference to Oberst, but fears of burnout weren't palpable. Bright Eyes was reveling in the role of the moment, however self-destructive it needed to be to be truly badass; Omaha had their Elliot Smith and, as I passed Oberst a bottle or can of whatever, it was evident that they intended to hump it to death.
From there, the sightlines were pretty well set. Over the next couple of years, I would catch Bright Eyes a handful of times, where I could be treated to any one of a variety of configurations: Full backing bands of women in evening gowns or Oberst sporting a white suit in a look that could only accurately be described as televangelical; nothing was out of the question. When the next album was released, with the mouthful of a title, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, anticipation was at a fever pitch. Distributors had trouble stocking the double vinyl version, which was released first and was outselling the CD. Rolling Stone gushed, calling Oberst "a twenty-two-year-old cult hero from Omaha, Nebraska, who comes on like a foxy young Bob Dylan." Even I couldn't resist the charm of Lifted, reviewing it as "quite possibly the best album of the year." If there were an Indie Rock 500 list of companies, Saddle Creek would be on the cover and Oberst would be Man of the Year. Things seemed to be coming to a head for Oberst and the Saddle Creek roster that had sprung from his coat tails onto their own beanstalks. Shit, to put it frankly, was blowing up.
And of course then there was the Winona Ryder chapter, which moved Bright Eyes solidly from the underground/college circuit to the big show. Ryder, who is famous on her own for films like Edward Scissorhands, was being sautéed in the media over her videotaped shoplifting spree in an upscale New York store. "You know what the hardest thing about throwing a hump into Winona is," asked Rolling Stone bloggers Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman. "You have to keep one hand on your wallet." Retreating into her private life, Ryder returned to what she knew best - turning indie rockers into People magazine material, as she had done with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner and not-1969 Ryan Adams. As far as anyone knows, Ryder and Oberst were meant to be, and the arrangement hasn't hindered Bright Eyes' ascension. Over the past two years, Oberst has gallivanted around the globe, in his lackluster rock band Desaparecidos, on television programs like Austin's City Limits and on tours with the likes of M. Ward and My Morning Jacket's Jim James.
Most recently, Oberst had been touring as part of the 2004 politirock circus alongside 1980s-to-present rock monsters Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band and R.E.M. The progressive political group MoveOn.org, which had relegated Dave Matthews to a separate tour (not the one on which his tour bus dumped its sewage into the Chicago river), tapped Oberst to draw in the youngsters to its Vote for Change tour, balancing out Springsteen's geriatric and R.E.M.'s androgynous crowd. With such high stakes in the Presidential election, Oberst had no choice but to oblige his civic duties and tour for change. But what about a new album?
By the time the Vote for Change tour rolled out Oberst had been sitting on a stockpile of songs, penned during the blossoming of his stardom and celebrity romance. Unwilling to compromise on the diverse material and cut it down to a single album, and not wanting the impending success to distract Americans from their duties at the polls, Oberst broke from his even-years cycle of album releases. Rather than keep the usual schedule, Oberst took up the social cause and divvied up the tracks into two full-lengths to be released in unison to start off 2005. The pair of releases, entitled I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, demonstrate the multiple possibilities of Oberst's advantageous position; the current heir-apparent to the Bob Dylan crown, coming of age in a digital revolution, straddles the flavor of both the resurgent country/folk scene and the emerging home mechanics of electronic music.
Will Oberst, who has left the starchy familiarity of Omaha for the drab beauty of New York, continue his rise? If the last two weeks of the Billboard charts are any indication, it would appear that way. And, considering the departure of Johnny Cash and Elliot Smith and the forecasted fizzling of Radiohead, now is as good a time as any. SEE ALSO: www.thestoryinthesoil.com
SEE ALSO: www.saddle-creek.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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