For a time in the early 2000s, Conor Oberst was dismissed as a floppy-haired emo fad who had a problem with both wine and whining. But the Nebraska-born musican's prolific songwriting abilities and versatility have led to a long and fruitful career. Here are five highlights…
Man and Wife, The Latter (Damaged Goods)
Despite having a band name that was hard to pronounce and even harder to spell (it means “disappeared ones” in Spanish and Portuguese), 2002’s Read Music Speak Spanish still found a faithful audience because of the passion and power evident on every single track. Most memorably, the Nebraska quintet recorded two songs for their debut that painted both sides of a marriage breakdown. The results – Man and Wife, The Former (Financial Planning) and Man and Wife, The Latter (Damaged Goods) - were devastatingly good and did in seven minutes, what the (also heartbreaking) movie Kramer Vs. Kramer took 105 to do.
Waste of Paint
Desaparecidos, despite an immediate buzz, disbanded in 2002 – the same year Read Music Speak Spanish was released – because Oberst’s solo project Bright Eyes was dominating the singer’s time. The reason was Bright Eyes’ fourth album: LIFTED, or the Story is in The Soil, Keep Your Ear to The Ground. The 13-tracker contained snapshots of youthful mistakes and teenage bliss, philosophical musings on the meaning of life and loneliness, and poetic contemplations about every day happenings that belied Oberst’s young age (he was only 22 when LIFTED was released). The big hit was a self-hating tale of groupie love (Lover I Don’t Have to Love), but the most ambitious moments came in the form of Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved), the almost unspeakably bleak Don’t Know When But a Day’s Gonna Come and Waste of Paint, which wove snapshots of beauty and tragedy together seamlessly.
Monsters of Folk
Though formed in 2004, Monsters of Folk didn’t release their self-titled debut album until 2009. M.O.F. was to wistful indie nerds what the Traveling Wilburys was to your dad: a supergroup of momentous proportions, thanks to the combined powers of Oberst, M. Ward and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. The band specialised in dreamy, breezy, folk-influenced rock that wasn’t afraid of a sweet chorus or a rockin’ guitar solo, and occasionally – like on Say Please - sounded rather a lot like John Lennon. Which isn’t a bad thing, obviously.
Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
In January 2005, Bright Eyes released two albums simultaneously: the folky I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, and the electro-tinged Digital Ash In A Digital Urn. The latter was a marked departure from anything Bright Eyes had released before and widened Oberst’s appeal and audience considerably. Wide Awake spawned First Day of My Life – a major hit – but the sparkly electro experimentation of Take It Easy (Love Nothing), marked a turning point in the ambitions of Oberst and an exercise in stretching himself outside of the realms of what his core fan base expected of him.
Oberst’s most recent project is a solo album titled Upside Down Mountain, which sees him stripping back to an early Bright Eyes style, with some country accents thrown in, some Monsters of Folk Beatles elements (see: Double Life) and – despite the bleak, mid-album track, Lonely At The Top - a markedly more upbeat spirit, probably thanks to the singer-songwriter’s more stable, more comfortable personal life. Thankfully, the poetic spirit remains.
Conor Oberst performs at London Koko (July 18), Suffolk Latitude Festival (19) and Dublin Longitude Festival (20).