Nothing can inspire like a good lyric. For many listeners and critics alike, the work of Bob Dylan demolished a wall that separated lyrics from legitimate poetry. Read the “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” liner notes for Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changing” album, and never doubt the man’s talent ever again.
When lyrics contain inherent poetical value, while also bouncing off the accompanying musical sounds in sweet synchronization, the result can be magical. (Think of Stipe sighing, “your light white is bright, light, white light” against the lovely instrumentation in R.E.M.’s ‘Low’) The colliding art forms can overwhelm. Great lyricists are wizards, for sure, maybe akin to the hipster wizards from Super Mario World, posted up in Bowser’s castles.
Contemporarily speaking, Conor Oberst is one of music’s finest songwriters. Oberst utilizes his interior world as a vehicle to deliver art. He has been occasionally criticized for obsessively exploring his own psyche, in lieu of other subjects.
Oberst can compare to Dylan, where pure lyricism is concerned. May be blasphemous to some, but the debate can be broached, at least until some baby boomer threateningly brandishes a copy of “Chronicles: Volume One.” (And bring on Volume Two! Can’t Wait…)
When it comes to vocalization, there may not be much of an argument. Dylan has something special in his voice and delivery, honed through his folk origins and Jimmy Dean mean styling, that is difficult for any songwriter to match. The venom seeping through his darker songs only makes the sensitive tunes more special. We’re in a different era now; our artists usually do not imagine themselves in a triumphant hero’s guise. That’s too bad, in many ways. When there’s a hero involved, the sad songs are more poignant. (In this sense, “Time out of Mind” represented a complete departure from this approach for Dylan, but alas, that’s another article…)
Bright Eyes, Oberst’s primary songwriting vehicle, appeals especially to amateur philosophers often uncomfortable in their own skin. Isaac Brock writes songs expressing existential frustration, often accepted with detachment violently expressed yet somehow dignified. (“Parting of the Sensory” one such masterpiece) Great songs to keep the fire burning… Oberst is a different type of writer, capable of providing comfort even while exploring the darkest subject matter. He’s not the second coming of Dylan, though that lazy designation has been dropped at his door repeatedly through the years, especially in the earlier phase. And it is difficult to compare him with another current artist, like the equally unique Brock.
The following is a listing of four personal favorite Oberst lyrics. In no particular order, because it’s goofy to debate how a list such as this is configured. He’s a true artist in today’s pop realm. We need more of that.
- I Believe in Symmetry – off Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
- Easy, Lucky, Free – off Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
Lyrics in Question: I Believe in Symmetry
“The argument for consciousness
The instinct of the blind insect
Who never thinks not to accept its fate, that’s faith
There’s happiness in death
You give to the next one
You give to the next on down the line
You give to the next one
You get to the next on down the line.”
Lyrics in Question: Easy, Lucky, Free
“Sometimes I worry that I’ve lost the plot
My twitching muscles tease my flippant thoughts
I never really dreamed of heaven much
Until we put him in the ground
But it’s all I’m doing now
Listening for patterns in the sound
Of an endless static sea
But once the satellite’s deceased
It blows like garbage through the streets
Of the night sky to infinity.”
There is something remarkably original occurring on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, a theme that both engages and challenges the listener. Misery can be analyzed, the imposing power of death recognized, this has been done before, and extremely well, by thousands of poets, painters, and thinkers through the centuries. Oberst though, makes a wholly unique statement with this particular album, especially these two songs. He seems to be addressing the dreaded ‘what if’ question swimming in all of our subconscious dwellings, the hopeless query about whether our lives mean anything in the face of expiration. Is our consciousness ultimately a curse, allowing us to see all the way down a road that ends, certainly in a physical sense?
It’s a frightening consideration. The genius of these lyrics resides in an empowering sense of acceptance, paired with a simultaneous recognition of the potential validity in strictly materialistic viewpoints of reality.
If, in fact, our worst of fears about death are true, then so what? “I believe in Symmetry,” posits that our efforts can better the next generation, be it familial or otherwise. We are all ultimately working for the cause of advancement, and if the progress includes our deaths, we should not flee from our responsibility as a member of the grand orchestra of nature. The song’s arrangement seems to push that point forward.
“Easy, Lucky, Free” encourages similarly, acknowledging that it is our creativity and imaginations capable of conjuring such concepts as ‘heaven.’ Whether or not one believes in heaven, we can all agree it takes significant imagination to think about the subject. When eternal belief systems are challenged, the lyrics direct the listener toward channeling that creativity positively, like searching ‘for patterns in the sounds, of an endless, static sea.’ It takes real strength to create in the face of perceived futility. But futility only has the power we grant it. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn challenges the modern free thinking man and woman, to refuse tabbing misery as the conclusion of their life’s thesis. Art can still be great, even if simply wallowing. These lyrics do more than that. Songs like “Down a Rabbit Hole” and “Hit the Switch” echo this theme.
Oberst took a real step forward with these lyrics, staring the outcome millions fear straight in the face, and presenting a positive message.
3. Haile Selassie – off The People’s Key
Lyrics in Question:
“I had the wildest dream last night
I was swimming with you in that Cenote the Heavens made with black fire
Just woke up too soon.”
The People’s Key was not greeted with unanimous praise by Bright Eyes fans or the press. Well, that’s usually the case when a band decides to continue pursuing their creative instinct, instead of simply staying with what has been deemed acceptable output by external forces.
When risks are taken, failures accompany success in equal measure. It is my opinion that the Key is a tremendous album. The album deals primarily with spirituality, but instead of pondering the question of what is “real,” the songs dive into primal human instinct, and it’s connection with faith. The album asks many fascinating questions: perhaps most importantly, whether spirituality is wired into our hard-drives, inevitably a factor in our lifetimes, even if totally ignored (A Machine Spiritual sums up that thread quite effectively, if there is a ‘spirit’ in the idea of basic advancement, be it evolutionary or technologically)
The religion of love and understanding, without a name or official congregation, is the driving force of the album. If spirituality is an inevitable fact for many of us, how can it be a positive factor in our lives? How can we celebrate our different beliefs, instead of employing them as a conduit for division? And similarly to the themes found on Ash, where does the modern, pragmatic cat fit into all of this? (The song Beginner’s Mind, where Oberst appears to be encouraging a friend finding strength in Buddhist beliefs to stay on his path, is especially enjoyable)
The lyrics above, from the song “Haile Selassie” elicit wonder. It is the emotion of wonder that many spiritually minded people claim connects us to a higher force. The existence of dreams, images and fragments visiting upon us while asleep, is a fascinating fact of life. Within a song filled with wondrous imagery, Oberst drops the listener into a cenote, naturally forming water filled pits found in Central America. In the cenote he swims with someone beautiful. The longing in his voice gives that fact away.
The listener has been exported from a dense song about the interconnectedness of humanity into a wild dream, swimming in a cenote that the heavens made with black fire. These words also connect quite skillfully with a prior verse about the ‘omega day in a plain sight… being… ‘Too good to be true.’ Our dreams often are too good to be true, and Oberst wakes up from the cenote fantasy ‘too soon.’ (Superb rhyming of phrase fit into a theme)
The listener is left grappling with reality, searching for the wonder that ignites our DNA… hence the primary theme of the album, and, arguably, human life. Primal joy makes us feel like we can live forever. Sometimes our dreams are a tease, but the salvation we pine for just might be hiding in plain sight.
- 4. Lime Tree – off Cassadaga
Lyrics in Question:
“The window closes, shock rolls over in a tidal wave
And all the color drains out of the frame
So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good
I took off my shoes and walked into the woods
I felt lost and found with every step I took.”
Cassadaga is an interesting album. At times the songs sound like they emerged out of the woods of upstate New York, twisting through the thicket and into the listener’s ears. Yet there is also an urban vibe on tracks such as ‘Make a Plan to Love Me,’ ‘Cleanse Song’ and ‘Coat Check Dream Song.’ This may be best described as the Bright Eyes album most closely associated with distinct locations, as Oberst, the narrator, is alternately ‘heading to New England,’ watching an ‘empire ending’ on a city rooftop, or chilling out for awhile in Los Angeles.
‘Lime Tree,’ suitably, resembles the rest of the album, mysterious. It features a strumming guitar, backed by orchestral strings.
Frustration boils under Oberst’s drowsy delivery. He can see flaws, externally and internally, yet at the time of this song’s recording, appears unable to call upon the power to make peace with the problems, let alone consciously change them. ‘I felt nauseous with the truth,’ Oberst sings in disgust. There is a distinct complaint about human reality being made here, a grievance made by artists for centuries.
The chilling imagery of ‘I took off my shoes and walked into the woods’ calls upon a primitive type of desolation, even shame. We can so clearly know ourselves; and yet, at the same time, be unable to accept the paralyzing truth about negativity. It is a real force capable of causing us to leave our potential unfulfilled, and authentic relationships bypassed. (“Standing on a doorstep full of nervous butterflies, waiting to be asked to come inside… just come inside.”)
What remains is a journey of intensity and incredible discomfort, as brilliantly expressed with the removal of shoes. A path where we are ‘lost and found… with every step.’ It’s a sad song, beautiful, but sad.
As the last track of the album, it is perhaps not only a summation of Cassadaga; but the difficulties presented by the human psyche. We own the consciousness to perceive inequity, unfairness, broken dreams and shattered expectations. When we become beaten down emotionally, infected with the toxicity of apathy and low energy, “all the color” can indeed, “(drain) out of the frame.” Hopefully the listener can find themselves in the woods, and overcome the times feeling lost.