I will never be sorry for (still) loving Bright Eyes

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

There’s no explanation for the bizarre alchemy that makes music so profound when you’re an awkward, out-there teenager trying to figure it all out. But whatever magic is at work, sometimes all it takes is one overheard song to make a band part of who you are as a person. For me, that happened in 2002, when I was fourteen and heard Bright Eyes for the first time.

Fourteen years on, admitting that Bright Eyes has been the soundtrack of half my life feels a little strange. Saying that Bright Eyes is your favorite band as a fourteen-year-old is one thing. But putting the Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis music machine at the top of your list as a grown woman in your late 20s is another all-together. It feels a little exposing, as if I need to justify enjoying a band often grouped in with the emo movement. And that sense that I owe people an explanation for an outlier in my otherwise fairly routine musical taste (if it’s appeared on a Wes Anderson soundtrack, chances are I love it) has led to hours of self-critical thought about what it is about Bright Eyes that always has me coming back. It all boils down to something pretty simple: I feel like I grew up with them.

How I discovered Bright Eyes is as much part of the significance that band has for me as the music itself. My best friend and I were hanging out with her unbelievably cool older brother, who was playing records in his room. Among the albums he played was the newly-released Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground. The lush, driving, slightly chaotic album was unlike anything I’d ever heard, and I immediately fell in love. But, fearing I’d seem tragically unhip if I asked what was playing, I committed a few verses from one song to memory and planned on figuring it out later.

For readers who don’t remember the days before the Internet was an intuitive streaming machine, it may come as a surprise that the chorus of “Bowl of Oranges” wasn’t enough to get a band name or album title. It took me months of failed AOL searches and hours of scouring the local Sam Goody to finally find a copy of the CD … which was way out of my price range. Instead, I bought the EP There Is No Beginning to the Story, and listened to the four songs as loud as possible on my Discman. When I finally saved up the money to buy the full-length CD, I memorized every single song and bored my friends by making them listen to tracks I found particularly interesting.

As a teenager, Lifted spoke to me in a very specific sort of way. I was a political teen, and the rage-fueled social commentary in songs like “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” echoed my own nascent beliefs. But I was also a kid, with a whole lot of emotions. The album’s harsh cacophonies and mournful acoustic interludes matched my own highs and lows, bouncing between the confusion and insecurity of the early teens. Rather than make me feel overly emotional, Lifted provided an outlet for so much of what I was feeling that I saw it was possible to make space for all of it.

When I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was released in 2005, I was a few years older and my tastes were shifting. I’d discovered Bob Dylan and folk music, and was thrilled when on the first listen of the new album it seemed Bright Eyes was moving in that direction. Acoustic guitars and upbeat melodies were paired with messages that echoed my own stances and a Beat Generation-influenced outlook on life. When Conor sings, “I’m happy just because / I found out I am really no one,” in the opening track “At The Bottom of Everything,” he tapped into my growing interest in existentialism; “First Day of My Life” was a realistic love song that was at once sentimental and clear-eyed; “Road to Joy” gave me an outlet for the anger I felt over current events, and screaming along with it on my drive to school was almost therapeutic.

I felt much the same way when Cassadaga was released in 2007. As a college student struggling with depression for the first time, the melodic, haunting, country-twinged album had just enough optimism to feel hopeful. Many of the songs, like “Cleanse Song” and “If The Brakeman Turns My Way,” feel like they were written at the point when things are about to turn around but haven’t yet. Other songs, like “I Must Belong Somewhere,” have a zen ethos that encouraged me to look forward and accept the past. Somehow Oberst had once again nailed exactly what I was experiencing, and given me an album that was perfectly of the moment.

Although Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes have always been grouped with the emo bands that came along in the early 2000s, that label never sat right with me. The band started recording in the mid-1990s, when Oberst was a teenager himself, unlike emo bands made up of guys in their 20s writing songs for sad fifteen-year-olds. There’s an authenticity in Oberst’s writing that can’t be faked for mass appeal, and his ability to morph as an artist, as his own perspective changes, speaks to that. What’s more, many of their earliest work holds up now, and I’ve found layers of meaning in their first few releases that I never could have as a teen.

Take, for example, “A Perfect Sonnet” off the 1999 EP Every Day and Every Night. When I was working on my MA thesis and considering a career in writing, a completely different direction than I ever thought I’d move professionally, I suddenly understood what he meant when he sang, “Lately I’ve been wishing I had one desire / Something that would make me never want another / Something that would make it so that nothing mattered / All would be clearer then.” When facing change, Lifted’s “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” has offered more validation and support than any other song I’ve heard. The band’s second studio release, Letting Off the Happiness in 1998, includes the song “The Difference In The Shades,” which offers a moving portraits of nostalgia and the sadness of time that seems to be more beautiful with every passing year.

I’ve seen Conor Oberst in concert a few times, touring with the Mystic Valley Band and during an incredible throwback set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. But that first live experience was far more powerful than I expected. Sure, I was excited and nervous to finally see him live after four years of adoration. But when I was standing in front of him, pushed up against the stage, I was overcome. I had read that he has a habit of picking one person to make eye contact with during his shows, probably a rumor fed by fans like me who want to believe they were that special someone. All the same, when I thought he met my eyes, I fought the urge to look away. To this day I believe, despite logic, that he actually saw me during that show because I needed to feel that connection with a man who had ushered me through my teenage years and into adulthood.

Shortly after that show, I got my third tattoo. The comet from the album cover of Cassadaga streaks across my wrist, a subtle nod to the band that helped me make sense of it all without demanding that I have the answers. When people ask me about the tattoo, I can’t help but feel a little sheepish to admit that it’s a Bright Eyes homage, not because I regret getting the ink or no longer admire the band as much as I did eight years ago, but because there’s just no way to succinctly sum up what the band means to me. Over the years, Bright Eyes has given me the space to be angry, sad, hopeful, in love, and confused all at the same time. And that’s really all anyone — whether they’re fourteen or twenty-eight — can hope to find in a band.

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(Image courtesy of Saddle Creek Records)