This feature originally ran in 2014. We’re reposting in anticipation of Conor Oberst’s new album, Salutations.
Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
For those of us reared in the expanse of the true Midwest, the open, rolling hills and endless corn and soybean fields, music from the coasts was for escapism. We didn’t surf. We didn’t know what a major city really was, but we could listen to that music and imagine it. The music that really hit our hearts, though, was from our own backyards, and if you were a “hip” teen anywhere from 1997 on, usually that music included Saddle Creek Records. More importantly, it included Conor Oberst, the Crown Prince of Midwest teenage self-loathing. He became someone we grew with, not just grew up with.
At the age of 12, he tipped off his songwriting career, released his first self-produced tape at 13, and by 15 had already started his first band, Commander Venus, with other Omaha stalwarts Tim Kasher (Slowdown Virginia, Cursive, The Good Life), Todd Fink and Matt Bowen of The Faint, Ben Armstong (Head of Femur), and Robb Nansel (Saddle Creek Records). However, it was his solo project, Bright Eyes, that brought him fame. At 18 years old, his first major release, 1998’s Letting Off the Happiness, brought him critical acclaim, and lost teens latched on to his shockingly honest songs of booze, girls, and awkwardness. He was different from the emo punk kids crying into their guitars. Oberst, it seemed, was just too drunk and numb to cry anymore. He was angry with a quiet, swallowed rage that we Heart of America kids understood.
Plucked from the small Saddle Creek label, Oberst has been called our generation’s Bob Dylan — a moniker that Oberst doesn’t quite feel comfortable wearing. He has released eight Bright Eyes albums, one full album and multiple singles with punk rock side project Desaparecidos, five solo albums (three with the Mystic Valley Band), and numerous collaborations and guest spots. He’s written hundreds of songs with all these iterations, so it was difficult to settle on any 10 to try to encapsulate him as a songwriter. That being said, here are our top 10 Oberst-penned songs — the drunkest, angriest, saddest, and/or most poetic. Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments.
Senior Staff Writer
Bright Eyes – “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”
Conor Oberst sees dread just about anywhere. In “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”, Oberst stars in one of the bleakest tales of groupie sex ever written or recorded. Over its signature cyclical organ riff — which serves as the song’s dull, stinging, yet unforgettably catchy anchor — Oberst chronicles a drug-fueled post-performance hookup as if it were a death sentence. Like many of Oberst’s best songs, its melodrama is so palpable that, in attempting to sound profound, it eclipses its own gravity and caves in on itself, revealing the true despair beneath all the histrionics. “You write such pretty words/ But life’s no storybook,” Oberst whisper-cries at the song’s key fissure, proving even he’s aware that a wry turn of the songwriter’s phrase can’t help a lost soul find itself. On “Lover”, Oberst crawls towards pleasure with a weary eye and proceeds to make love in the fetal position. Its danceability only amplifies the tension between the protagonist’s goal of thoughtless pleasure and the angst that destroys all of his chances of experiencing the illusory emotional cocktail. And like that vain quest, you can’t help but listen to “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” on repeat, trying to gleam something more from it each time. –Drew Litowitz
Desaparecidos – “Greater Omaha”
When Read Music/Speak Spanish by the Desaparecidos came out in 2002, the idea of Oberst as just some sad kid was blown apart. It was fuzzy, hard, smart punk rock that his voice seemed to fit perfectly, like a pair of your girlfriend’s jeans. Rather than writing inwardly — and, since it was near the beginning of the Bush regime, rather than focusing on W.’s politics — Oberst went after corporate greed and urban sprawl. There was no better place that epitomized these blights than Oberst’s beloved Omaha, Nebraska. In “Greater Omaha”, he admonishes the corporate takeover of his hometown by drive-thrus, convenience marts, and parking lots. He spews, “And it’s all-you-can-eat, and they will never get enough/ They’ll be feeding us/ They’ll be feeding on us,” with the same level of hatred he normally reserved for himself in Bright Eyes songs. For someone like me living in a Midwestern town, seeing the same things happen, it was a welcome support to my own anger. It was also nice to hear Conor redirect his anger away from his own brain. –Nick Freed
Bright Eyes – “Something Vague”
“Something Vague” arrives right on the heels of “The Calendar Hung Itself”, gently smothering the fire of its predecessor with the aural equivalent of a collapsing snowdrift. Soft fingerpicks, accordion, and a gorgeous flute solo by Jiha Lee underscore a story of existential ennui that’s only complicated by a dream of indecipherable transcendence. Like Owen Ashworth and Saddle Creek labelmate Maria Taylor, Oberst’s early work often portrayed one’s early adulthood not as carefree, but as desperate and directionless. “Calendar” zeroed its rage on a specific person, but “Something Vague” sweeps its eyes across an empty sky, asking in vain for some sign, any sign. Of course, this is a Conor Oberst song, so the one that comes leads not to revelation, but to confusion. Bummer. –Randall Colburn
Bright Eyes – “Four Winds”
For better or worse, Cassadaga marked Oberst’s full plunge into the bluegrassification of his sound. With mixed results, it painted Oberst as a roots revivalist struggling with his artistic evolution. “Four Winds” is easily the set’s most successful composition. Though it arguably apes its fiddle-led melody from both The Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, it holds its own entirely. Filled with some of Oberst’s most vivid imagery to date, the rollicking song is one of the catchiest and most stirring in his entire ouevre. Geopolitical and bleak, Oberst culls his most biting criticisms on religion and separatism to create an unlikely anthem for peaceful co-existence. Oberst’s rapid-fire lyrics are frustratingly on-point as he rattles off one great line after the next over some killer twang. “The Bible’s blind, Torah’s deaf, the Qur’an is mute/ If you burned them all together, you’d get close to the truth,” probably didn’t win him any religious fans, though. Now let’s go burn some scripture! –Drew Litowitz
Bright Eyes – “A Perfect Sonnet”
Every Day and Every Night EP standout “A Perfect Sonnet” encapsulates the greatest parts of Oberst’s lyrics and songwriting. The lines aren’t over the top, but they are standing with their toes right on the damn edge. References to the oh-so-Romantic execution practices popular in revolutionary France (“I believe that lovers should be tied together/ Thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather”) and the all-encompassing distaste for life and love (“You’ve spent your whole life sweating in an endless fever” and “But you know that she’s gone ’cause she left you a song/ That you don’t want to sing”) are combined with a bipolar quiet/loud rush of music that moves you like the tide. This song also signaled a push forward for Bright Eyes away from the, at times, whiny capacity of Oberst’s songs. I won’t go as far as to say a more “grown-up” change, but a definite… maturing. Also, this song is perfect for singing at full volume in a fast car when you’re 16. –Nick Freed
Bright Eyes – “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to Be Loved)”
Built around rollicking percussion, mournful horns, pedal steel, and a dozen more sepia-toned instruments, this 10-minute masterpiece closes out Lifted with a triumphant ode to idealistic exhaustion. Not only does it overflow with some of Oberst’s most affecting lyrical passages, it offers an antidote to those stricken by the artist’s oft-taxing left-wing aggression. It’s still here –”Well ABC, NBC, CBS: Bullshit!” — but there’s an evident strain of self-awareness that hearkens back to his steadfast convictions as it pokes holes in them, revealing the fragile figure buried within. Though it’s sung in the first person, “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” might be Bright Eyes’ most communal song, one that unites artist and audience using the one thing to which we all can relate: failure. –Randall Colburn
Bright Eyes – “From a Balance Beam”
“There’s a man holding a megaphone, he must have been the voice of god.” So begins what is arguably Oberst’s deepest cogitation on religion and life. Retelling the story of a faux-miracle gone awry, Oberst spirals into a sea of wry religious imagery that includes the narrator baptizing himself in coins in a hotel bath, being freed from the “prison” of existence and welcomed to heaven by the turn of a key, and awaiting astronomical alignment while staring at a wrist. It’s a whirlwind of a song, and at just 3:42, it’s filled to the brim with gorgeous imagery that sounds at once reverent and playfully disobedient. It’s a song like “From a Balance Beam” that proves Oberst’s greatest strength is blurring lines: exploring the gray areas between self-loathing and empowerment, intolerance and acceptance, frivolity and deep-seated anger. Confused? Him, too. –Drew Litowitz
Desaparecidos – “Anonymous”
After Desaparecidos, it seemed that Oberst’s lyrics shifted outwardly in a big way. He began writing more and more about the politics and happenings around him, which meant that the punk rock genius of Desaparecidos would be no more. But then, as world affairs grew to terror threat level “HOLY SHIT,” Oberst must have realized you can’t burn the establishment with an acoustic guitar and twang, because Desaparecidos came roaring back. One of the songs to come from the rebirth, “Anonymous”, is, in my mind, the best thing he has ever written as far as evoking a response. It is a protest song, a love letter, a call to arms, and a fist-pumping anthem right up there with Bad Religion. Its scream-along chorus of “You can’t stop us/ We are anonymous!” send chills down your spine. Hearing this song live makes you want to destroy whatever building you’re in and fight the system with Molotov cocktails and chains. –Nick Freed