Three Imaginary Girls

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Bright Eyes 101 - the Beginner's Guide to the best songs by Conor Oberst

A year after I moved to Seattle, a long time friend visited me in my new home city. The night he arrived, Bright Eyes and Her Space Holiday (neither a band I had ever heard of) performed at the Paradox and my friend said both bands were great and we should go. He was right.

After the show my friend introduced me to Conor Oberst (using the Bright Eyes band moniker), as he hung out outside the venue. I muttered what I usually say to my favorite musicians, which is something bland about how great the band’s songs are (note to self: figure out something sparkly to say to your heroes).

My first Bright Eyes show was September 30, 2000.

That night I fell in love with Bright Eyes’ entire catalog of songs – their lovelorn tales of depression, elation, loss, discovery, damage and confusion spoke to my battered heart. The songs created order out of all those puzzle pieces that previously had left me feeling unlovable, hopeless, disconnected, or even, sometimes, enamored and elated (yes, there are some happy Bright Eyes songs). They still do.

Bright Eyes’ songs express the disconnection and rejection of my early years, the typical pain and exclusion that come with love and trust, as well as the joy of an alliance.  They make sense of my world, my emotions, my hopes, my inadequacies, and my desires. They are my sad, happy, sad band.

I take some comfort in knowing the wave has crested
Knowing I don’t have to be an exception
– {19} “Haile Selassie”

Years later, my friend posted a note on Friendster that read:

I’m the one who introduced Liz to Conor Oberst, for which I apologize in advance to every guy she meets.

In the 16 years since my introduction, I’ve made a lot of promises to put together a Bright Eyes 101 compilation to help introduce all the people I love to all the songs I love by one of my favorite artists. I’ve found Conor Oberst songs are perfect remedies for break-ups and loneliness and soundtracks for triumphs and road trips.

A lot of these songs have given me push to get out of bed in the morning (see note on {16} below). The word I use most to describe how each songs makes me feel is “comforted”- I hope the highs and lows below offer some warm comfort for you as well.

Here are the 32 songs that offer a cross section spanning all of Conor Oberst’s musical endeavors (solo, Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk) over about 25-275 releases (exact count is difficult because there are so many ways to count it up).

It will take a little over 2 hours to come out the other side of this recap of my favorite high-points of Conor’s musical landscape – where it’s been, where it is, and some of the most special peaks of it. I’ve name-checked a lot of emotions here – I think this cross section just about covers them.

If you’re not ready to be fully converted (or don’t have the time/emotional bandwidth right now), I put a * next to the 10 songs I definitely don’t want you to miss in the track listing below.

The story is not complete. A retrospective box set of Bright Eyes’ Saddle Creek studio albums 2000-2011 (whose colored vinyl details make me lightheaded to recite)  is set to ship in mid-October. A new Conor Oberst album, Ruminations (on Nonesuch), is set to release in October 14 (it’s streaming on NPR! It’s. So. Good.). I expect that both will make me feel more complete.

The Beginner’s Guide to Conor Oberst

Tracklisting & Editor’s Commentary

{1} “From A Balance Beam” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (3:40)

Is it too much to start off the mix with a song that mentions “staring at my wrist”? I love the imagery of “I baptize myself in change” – a fresh start and hope, with it’s challenges and release – it’s a much more succinct turn of phrase communicating what took me 700+ words in my intro.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{2} “Reinvent The Wheel” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Four Winds (3:34)

A b-side on an EP, I hope this sweeping song about a lost idol eventually gets the attention it deserves. If anything it proves that Bright Eyes b-sides are just as important as the singles.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{3} “Losin Yo Head” – by Monsters Of Folk – from the release Monsters Of Folk (4:38)

Monsters of Folk is a “supergroup” made up of Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M. Ward (solo artist and half of She & Him), and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes). With those four big brains, I’m sure all credit for this song doesn’t belong to Conor – but it’s a favorite and illustrates he also works really well with others.
{easy street records} {amazon}

* {4} “Greater Omaha” – by Desaparecidos – from the release Read Music | Speak Spanish (4:15)

It is hard to narrow down which track I should choose from the first Desaparecidos album for this mixtape. Truth be told – the album needs to be heard in its entirety to fully appreciate the depth of its intent. The band consists of Conor and his friends and fellow members of the Omaha music scene. Their songs could change the world – if only we could get everyone to listen.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{5} “The Calendar Hung Itself…” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Fevers & Mirrors (3:56)

In the arc of my bond with Bright Eyes, this song is probably my first love. I had the benefit of seeing it performed live before I ever heard a recorded version of it. The intensity and urgency fills my heart with… intensity and urgency. This was also the name of the TIG show calendar for more than a decade.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

* {6} “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (4:00)

The awkward conversation and the lust in this story are, um, quite vivid. “Do you like to hurt? I do. I do” was in the running for the title of this 101 course.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{7} “Something Vague” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Fevers & Mirrors (3:34)

In my heart, this is a companion piece to track {5}. You *must* see this song live to fully appreciate the “And I hang like a star, fucking glow in the dark” part.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

* {8} “I Woke Up With This Song In My Head This Morning” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Lua (3:56)

Pairing “record collections” with “scratched affections” (another possible title of this piece) is pure brilliance and is my kind of love song.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{9} “A Perfect Sonnet” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Every Day And Every Night (3:42)

This is song is on an EP released when Conor Oberst was 19 and it was Bright Eyes’ third release. I like this song for what it is, but also because it’s a glimpse into what was to come.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{10} “Loose Leaves” – by Bright Eyes – from the release There Is No Beginning To The Story (3:43)

Another solid Bright Eyes’ EP – it’s got a Smiths quality with the happy-go-lucky soundtrack and the casually sardonic lyrics. Side note: this EP also features a cover of the Neil Young song, “Out on the Weekend” – which you should also treat yourself to.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{11} “Pull My Hair” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Letting Off The Happiness (4:10)

Again, this was from an album released when Conor Oberst was 19 years old. It took me about 10 years to be able to profess my love for it without feeling slightly creepy. It’s uncanny how he tapped into something I didn’t feel until I was in my 30s.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{12} “Sunrise, Sunset” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Fevers & Mirrors (4:32)

Further proof that the album Fevers and Mirrors is one of the most amazing albums ever made.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{13} “Governor’s Ball” – by Conor Oberst – from the release Upside Down Mountain (4:21)

I love a song about an adventure at a music festival (“Sorted for E’s & Wizz”) – the “klonopin eyes” reference and story accented with the keyboard strokes make this my favorite song from this 2014 album. There are actually a bunch of elements of this song that get stuck in my head for days.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{14} “Slacktivist” – by Desaparecidos – from the release Payola (2:54)

The scathing sarcasm is this song reminds us that we’ve got to do more than passively support causes to affect change.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{15} “Kathy With A K’s Song” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Oh Holy Fools (4:39)

The build of this song as it proclaims love is both real and predictable is searing. Don’t be fooled (or frightened) by the fragile beginning. There’s another version of this song on the import Don’t Be Frightened Of Turning The Page (released in Japan and the UK) that is 5:28 and a nice addition to your Bright Eyes collection.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

* {16} “I Will Be Grateful For This Day. I Will Be Grateful For Each Day To Come” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Noise Floor: Rarities 1998-2005 (4:20)

I first fell in love with this song when it was featured on a Sub-Pop 7” record (beautiful green vinyl). Back in 2001, I had a turntable in my sparsely furnished bedroom. I remember the six months after this record entered my life, the only thing that could get me out of bed each morning was the stumble over to the record player to play this song. I would start it up, fall back in bed, repeat.

An hour later I would shuffle into work (one of my favorite jobs ever, though it truly engulfed me). Perhaps it was the lyric “I’ll learn to love my new discovered proof” that helped me feel less overwhelmed by impending adulthood and the fact I still hadn’t found boyfriend #2 – at least enough to face the day (note to self – put a record player in my bedroom).
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{17} “A Scale, A Mirror, And Those Indifferent Clocks” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Fevers & Mirrors (2:45)

This is a cornerstone of the amazing album Fevers and Mirrors (which I’ve already convinced you to buy, right?). It’s graceful and ties a lot of the themes of the album together with a bow of: “Once the page of a calendar is turned it’s no more. So tell me then, what was it for?”
{label} {easy street records} {amazon / mp3}

{18} “Marikkkopa” – by Desaparecidos – from the release Payola (2:46)

After college graduation, I followed my heart to boyfriend #1 in Maricopa county (in Arizona). In the 3+ years I was there, I never found my footing. Even though I thought I had found love, I felt the most deserted and insecure of my life. It wasn’t until years later that I could confidently proclaim, “Dear Phoenix, it wasn’t me, it was you!” The fact that Sheriff Joe Arpaio was considered a “hero” there only confirms it.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{19} “Haile Selassie” – by Bright Eyes – from the release The People’s Key (4:33)

By including this song on the mix, maybe now folks will know what I’m referencing when I shout “One Love!”
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{20} “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Digital Ash In A Digital Urn (3:21)

I love the waves of synth and blips that flow throughout this song. “I should probably feel cheap but I just feel free… and a little bit empty.”
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{21} “I’ve Been Eating (For You)” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Noise Floor: Rarities 1998-2005 or 3 New Hit Songs From Bright Eyes (2:58)

The brutal pain in this song is so palatable I nearly lose my own appetite. To me it’s not really about starving oneself, it’s about cutting oneself off from the things that make you happy and healthy – because the loss is too much. Insert my own inner-monologue of never being good enough here.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

* {22} “Road To Joy” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Motion Sickness (5:57)

After a song as severe as {21}, “Road to Joy” with its orchestra of free-wheeling bass-lines and trumpets, felt the perfect next step. Bonus, this live version features applause – my favorite instrument. The lyrics are just as sharp and include two passages I recite to myself most days:

[quote style=”boxed”]No one ever plans to sleep out in the gutter
Sometimes that’s just the most comfortable place[/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]Let’s fuck it up boys, make some noise![/quote]

The studio version of this song (just as great) is on the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{23} “Easy/Lucky/Free” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Digital Ash In A Digital Urn (5:32)

This is a track from the album most often described as Bright Eyes’ “electronic” album – but this song feels so much more than that. The video is a triumph as well.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{24} “Waste Of Paint” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (6:30)

Many Conor Oberst songs have the talent of taking me out of my own narrative and remind me that everyone is suffering and needs to be cared for accordingly. Also, that part about the “fairy tales that drugged us” is rad.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

* {25} “NYC-Gone, Gone” – by Conor Oberst – from the release Conor Oberst (1:12)

Thanks for the party road trip song! Also, there is debate on whether the artist and album name is actually “Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band” but that discussion might be delving into the superfan minutiae a little too deep.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{26} “Singularity” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Singularity (4:30)

This is likely the most “lounge singer” of all the Conor Oberst songs. I adore the way the words words depicting an end of times roll of my tongue.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{27} “Hot Knives” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Cassadaga (4:14)

This is one of my favorite songs. If I had to pick a top five Bright Eyes songs – this would solidly be at the top. The tales of consolation in mutual pain feed my soul. “I’ve made love, I’ve been fucked, so what?!?!” I equally adore the modified-for-TV version in the performance on Letterman: “I’ve made love, in handcuffs, so what?!?!”
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{28} “Another Travelin’ Song” – by Bright Eyes – from the release I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (4:17)

Another great road trip song – and that’s Emmylou Harris sharing the vocals.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{29} “Souled Out!!!” – by Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band – from the release Conor Oberst (3:32)

Songs that are free of the moniker “Bright Eyes” have a different heaviness. They rely less on the autobiographical feel (please note the difference of feeling autobiographical and being autobiographical) and get their strength from a thicker band dynamic and, usually, lots of guitars. This mix up of styles makes adds a nice new dimension to the catalog.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{30} “First Day of My Life” – by Bright Eyes – from the release I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (3:09)

I almost didn’t include this song because it’s been co-opted on so many crush playlists as a token “I’m so cool that I dedicate this song to you.” But, it’s a really great song and I’ll probably request it be played at my funeral. It is *that* good. Also, “When the President Talks to God” is a b-side on this song’s single release. Years from now, I will use that song to explain the G. W. Bush years to my kid.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

{31} “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)” – by Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band – from the release Outer South (3:34)

As with {29}, this is a song, not a confession or an anecdote. It’s full bodied and I’d love to see it performed at the Tractor Tavern.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

* {32} “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” – by Bright Eyes – from the release Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (10:08)

I’ve heard this song more times than I can count, and the beautiful chaos and eloquent outrage still leave me amazed and stunned.

There is no better way to wrap it all up… or kick it off… or live it up.
{label} {easy street records} {amazon}

Rinse and Repeat

And here’s the playlist on youtube if you want to play in on repeat (recommended).

Top: a couple of the photos in the lead montage were provided to TIG by brilliant and talented photographers: Ryan Schierling and Chona Kasinger.