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.