Conor Oberst Is the Next … Conor Oberst

Guest post by Dave Arey

I have absolutely nothing against Conor Oberst. In fact, I think his self-titled solo album shows that he has come a long way as an artist. Lyrically, it’s leagues better than Cassadaga, which collapsed under its own self-important weight. Still, something about Oberst and Bright Eyes has always bugged me: the whole “next Dylan” thing.

My caveats about comparing Oberst with Bob Dylan have nothing to do with their disparity in talent. I think comparing the two in those terms is insulting to Dylan. The more important difference is the perspective each takes.

No singer in modern memory has made more out of the pronoun “I” than Oberst. Through his music, we know almost everything about him. We know that he’s skeptical about Christianity (“Don’t Know When But a Day is Gonna Come”). We know he hates the current administration (many songs, but “When the President Talks to God” sticks out the most). We are even aware of his alcoholism and drug abuse (“Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” “Lua”).

Think about this. How much do we know about Bob Dylan? Sure, he uses the pronoun “I” a lot, but rarely does this reveal anything about him. His most famous songs that contain “I” or “me” (“I Want You,” “I Shall Be Released,” “It Aint Me, Babe”) are not even about him. They’re about the potential lover or the man standing next to him in a crowd. They’re about everyone.

With this new album, Oberst is certainly trying to be more ambiguous. I doubt you’ll ever hear him sing a lyric like “Will my number come up eventually? Like Love is some kind of lottery” (from 2002’s “Waste of Paint”) again. Still, there is far more disclosure on the new record than you would ever find in a Dylan song. For instance, check out “Milk Thistle,” which ends the album on an introspective note:

I was poised for greatness
I was down and out
I keep death at my heels
Like a Bassett hound

If I go to heaven I’ll be bored as hell
Like a crying baby at the bottom of a well

On the surface, one could think that he’s saying nothing here, just throwing words at the wall. And in some ways, he certainly is — the interplay of “heaven” and “hell” seems especially contrived. Still, when you look at it closer, “Milk Thistle” is Oberst revealing who he is, warts and all. His entire career has been about expectations — in a couple years, he went from “The Next Dylan” to a burned-out drug addict to, today, an afterthought. Now, he’s trying to come to grips with the fact that he is all those things and none of them. That he wants you to love him, and he also wants you to leave him alone.

Oberst represents an extreme extension of ‘70s singer-songwriters — artists who were willing to sing about their feelings and give fans entry into their personal lives that would have been unheard of in Dylan’s time. In that way, “The Next James Taylor” is probably more appropriate than “The Next Dylan.”

Still, we don’t really need to call Oberst “the next” anything. He’s 28 now. He can go down whatever road he pleases.

MP3: Conor Oberst – “Milk Thistle”

Worth 1000: Kevin Costner, Swing Vote, Elton John, and Tequila

MP3: Elton John -“Social Disease”

Hip-Hop Wisdom: Pharoahe Monch’s Lyrics Loop the Loop on “Body Baby”

Pharoahe Monch’s Desire somehow evaded 2007’s best-of lists. In addition to a dozen absolutely blazing beats, Monch (a part-time Diddy ghostwriter) sports a spectrum of rhymes, from fun wordplay to left-field philosophizing to good old-fashioned self-hype. Here’s an example of the former, from the gospel-style shout “Body Baby”:

No flash in the pan raps are not flashy
Free at last we, will never recycle
the same songs from last week, we’re free of last week
Thank God almighty we free at last, we
Went back to the ashes raw raps and raspy

Monch’s delivery sputters rhythmically as the backbeat jolts his trains of thought, like Harrison Bergeron interrupted by his in-ear noise machine. This leads him to explore every permutation of a phrase like “free at last,” until the repetition of that phrase becomes a sort of paradox. First he promises not to repeat himself. Then he almost does, but instead he pulls a lyrical fakeout, pulling up out of a nose dive with yet another play on “free at last.”

Meanwhile, “Let’s Go” shows what Monch can do once he gets a theme on his mind: exhaust it.

You use sex to sell, your Nextel to Sprint
Everything you represent is immoral
Cingular, not plural
You and your Sidekick get rid of that whack Trio
I freeze emcees zero degrees below
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
You need to get loose, to the heat of produce
From Long Beach to Boston
Your chicks text us like Dallas and Austin
I spark tireless illumination
Fire sixteen bars, wireless communication

That a solid eight cellphone references, six of which are brand names. Not the album’s strongest work, but it shows Monch owning a verse, flexing a new muscle, showing us a new trick. And if that’s not your bag, I’ll leave you with a one-liner, from the song “Desire”:

Still get it poppin’ without artist & repertoire
‘Cause Monch is a monarch only minus the A&R

MP3: Pharoahe Monch – “Body Baby”

Muxed Bag: 10 Songs (Sort of) About Dancing

Wordsworth’s Muxed Bag is now playing at Prefix Magazine!

Read the piece,

and listen along with Muxtape.

Cheers!

Bowerbirds: Saving the Earth Through Anthropomorphism

Last week we discussed songs (or the lack thereof) describing the alien landscape that made existentialism so easy in Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World. While Keane’s song “Bedshaped” put into words the intangible feeling of haziness that enables this polar rumination, I had a hard time thinking up songs specifically about setting; that is, songs about place.

Then I saw Bowerbirds, opening for Bon Iver at Black Cat. Hailing from Raleigh, North Carolina, their docile, creaking folk keeps close ties to home, whether it be the North Carolina woods, a vague lakeside memory, or the very house they write in.

One scientist in Encounters says Antarctica feels like a living being, that its constant drifting and shifting — and its push-and-pull relationship with climate change — make him feel like he lives aboard a giant creature. (This quote doesn’t seem to be online; anyone have it?) In the song “My Oldest Memory,” off Bowerbirds’ album Hymns for a Dark Horse, the band sings about a natural haven preserved in memory:

And I dont know whose land we’re on
Is this an island that plots like a villain,
Or an old ghost friend we don’t believe in?

The verses flip like a photo album of a hike along the water: “Out where the waves wrestle with the dirty brine,” the band crosses sand and thicket to rest their heads in the nooks of a cypress. In the memory, recalled through the lens of a child, the land becomes a mystical character, large beyond comprehension. Now, looking back as adults, the picture is foggier: Is nature still an omnipresent spirit as it was during those barefoot and carefree summers? Or is it slowly dying at the hands of amnesia, fading like Tinkerbell as it disappears from our modern, responsible lives?

MP3: Bowerbirds – “My Oldest Memory”

XTC’s Marching “River of Orchids”

For all their herky-jerky new wave, XTC’s flourishes of modern classical music have produced some of their finest work. “River of Orchids” opens Apple Venus, Pt. 1 with the orchestral cinematography of a nature documentary — violin strings pluck like the first droplets of a rainstorm, setting still leaves to bounce. One by one, the landscape fills with counterpoint salvos of trumpets, vocal groans, and sung proclamations, until they build to a rushing river, a fanfare march, a column of soldiers parading into London.

As the music is a sort of round, so are they lyrics. Singer Andy Partridge recorded the vocals in a solitary fit of creativity — locked in his garden shed, shirtless and barefoot. He had the string samples laid down, and flipped through his notebook to find a stray couplet to fit: “I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus.”

This surreal image (dandelions don’t roar; Piccadilly Circus is actually an urban area in London’s West End) grew into “River of Orchids,” a call to arms in the name of England’s flora. Here are the lyrics, with repeated lines removed:

I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus
Take a packet of seeds
Take yourself out to play
I want to see river of orchids where we had a motorway

Push your car from the road

Just like a mad dog you’re chasing your tail in a circle
It’s all in your back yard
You’ve the whole world at your feet
I said the grass is always greener when it bursts up through concrete

River of orchids winding our way
Want to walk into London on my hands one day
River of orchids the road overgrows
Want to walk into London smelling like a Peckham Rose

I had a dream where the car is reduced to a fossil…

Note that Partridge sings in commands, lending urgency to the green rebellion. Some of the lines almost border on acts of violence — throwing around cars and upturning concrete — and the “I want” lyrics could be shouted from a dais. All in all the lyrics are snippets, related but nonsequential, letting the spinning melodies braid with the left-field violins and trumpets and dissonant “Hmmm” grunts. A time-lapse scene of sprouting dandelions becomes a Tolkien-like battalion of trees, marching to the sound of buglers and bullhorn slogans, the soundtrack of an unseen revolution.

MP3: XTC – “River of Orchids”

Worth 1000: Macro Photography

(grasshopper photo via Wired)

MP3: Toy – Decorama