There are videos on youtube of Conor Oberst, frontman of Bright Eyes and various other projects, from when he was in his tween years. One in particular comes to mind of a scrawny boy with a high crackling voice and round John Lennon glasses in a record store in Omaha, Nebraska, over-excitedly ranting about a record store he loved. There was this image of Conor Oberst with that trademark messy done-at-home haircut, moping in the basement of his parent’s house, surrounded by books and records, writing music and wailing through tear-stained and clenched eyelids. It’s a scene like a the lyric from Letting Off the Happiness’ “The City Has Sex,” which goes, “There’s a kid in the basement with a four track machine / and he’s been strumming and screaming all night down there / The tape hiss will cover the words that he sings / They say it’s better to bury your sadness.” It’s a charming image, but it’s one that Oberst has never really been able to shake, despite all his new sounds, solo or side projects and haircuts.
Even to this day, it seems like Bright Eyes has frequently been discredited and disregarded for being sad emo music made by a little boy, when there’s really much more to it than that. Now, looking back at those early albums twelve and then some years later, hopefully a more accurate perspective on Bright Eyes can emerge. The real relevance of the act is much more than just well penned sorrow. The music is a journey, a psychological adventure into deeply understanding oneself and one’s emotions like Jung or Freud’s methods or Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” (which relates mythology to psychology and is the basis for the Hollywood movie formula) or even Dante’s excursion into hell in “The Inferno.” It’s most obvious and practically perfected on Fevers & Mirrors, but it’s also present on every album. The lyrics may be extremely self-absorbed, but that’s what makes it universal, as everyone has to face the reality of themselves in the mirror at one time or another. It makes the music something that is helpful to listen to for anyone going through an emotional, existential or identity crisis…or maybe enabling those emotions is the worst possible choice. It’s always hard to decide. Yet, that’s another constant theme to Bright Eyes songs, the flexibility and confusion of truth.
May 1, 2012 saw the last round of reissues of Bright Eyes’ early releases; albums and EPs that were only previously available on vinyl compiled into a boxed set. The records represent some of Bright Eyes’ most inaccessible material and as such, this group of reissues is probably a bad starting point to dive into as a first exposure to the band. As the records get progressively easier to listen to, even going backwards through a discography mimics that inward adventure, with each record another descent into a deeper circle of self-inflicted hell. So, it’s probably better to start with a more recent release and work backward. The easiest way for the likes of casual listeners to get sucked in might be from the upright pop and conscious attempt at positivity of the most recent The People’s Key or the messy full member collaboration of Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band’s Outer South or maybe when his warbling voice is blended with Jim James and M. Ward on Monsters of Folk. Whatever the starting point, it’s better to let curiosity slowly tug you backwards, and downward, after that.
This review isn’t organized chronologically, because in order to cover all the reissues it seemed better to separate the proper albums from the other releases.
Every Day and Every Night
The cover of Every Day and Every Night might be the one referenced in “Waste of Paint” from 2002’s Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. The lyrics explain that Oberst had a friend who “once cut one of my nightmares out of paper / I thought it was beautiful, I put it on a record cover.” It feels more of a complete mini-album than any other Bright Eyes EP and could serve as a prelude to Fevers & Mirrors as it contains a lot of the same themes and even the symbols from the album’s title. Although, it’s a bit more youthful as the lyrics paint this picture of a self-destructive kid who’s bitter about love and obsessed with the end of it all, whose freedom is limited by being stuck in his parent’s house in Omaha where he has to work a shitty part-time job near a graveyard. Yet, the EP’s sound makes it seem like an appropriate fusion of the album before and after it. Like Letting Off the Happiness, it covers territory from acoustics to digital elements to sound collages that sound like they were cut from the same tape as the opening of “If Winter Ends.” It has an attention to detail which is a testament to Oberst’s craftsmanship and certainly makes it feel like an album (it was also the band’s only release in 1999). The collaboration with Joe Knapp of another Saddle Creek band, Son Ambulance, is a good accessible balance for the opener “A Line Allows Progress, A Circle Does Not” and was probably what led to their 2001 split EP, Oh Holy Fools.
Oh Holy Fools
Oberst has said that one of his own favorite Bright Eyes releases was his split EP with the band Neva Dinova, called One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels. He said, “It sounds like Omaha–a decade of house shows and warped seven inches and drunken band practices that we have all shared.” It’s a great little record and the Oh Holy Fools split with Son Ambulance is on par with it. Both pieces bear an evident camaraderie and love between the bands and their musicians as well as for the place in which they were playing, Omaha, Nebraska. Both also show Oberst being forced into an exercise where he had to reassemble his sorrow to play alongside another person.
Oh Holy Fools is actually a pretty light and actually quite positive piece. Even when Oberst is at his darkest on “Going for the Gold,” he’s got a sense of humor about himself and the song is about running the special depressed Olympics. It’s not as obsessively deep as other releases and is just full of simple affirmations of love and Son Ambulance’s contributions also follow the theme well. Knapp’s lyrics even rival Oberst’s poetically.
The main difference between the two splits is that Oberst wrote all the songs for One Jug of Wine in collaboration with Neva Dinova’s Jake Bellows and for Oh Holy Fools, Knapp and Oberst just picked out four songs each and shuffled them together–all of Oberst’s tracks are actually from a previous EP called Don’t Be Frightened of Turning the Page. Yet, on Don’t Be Frightened, Oberst’s lyrics can seem oddly trite in the context of the rest of his music as simply pieces of romantic devotion. His songs seem to fit better alongside Knapp’s sweet lyrics, syrupy voice and haphazard, silly instrumentation. Oh Holy Fools is also a good way to get into the Son Ambulance’s excellent first two albums Key and Euphemistic.
There is No Beginning to the Story
There is No Beginning to the Story is sort of an outcast from the group of reissues. It’s more of a companion for Lifted as the opener “From a Balance Beam” is the eleventh track on the record and the title comes from a lyric in “Method Acting.” The rest of the songs are just outtakes from the album and one Neil Young cover (“Out on the Weekend”). The EP is worth listening to if only for the song “Loose Leaves,” which is hands down the happiest Bright Eyes song in existence. It’s got a catchy digital melody and is about coming to terms with a lot of the heavy themes Lifted is struggling with, explaining, “Time’s not poison, but when you drink it all you’ll die / So let’s just sip it real slow, yeah we can nurse it all night / Try to believe that once it’s gone we’ll pour another round and come back to life.” The song ends with an almost two-minute sound recording that could be a reflection of Lifted’s opener, “The Big Picture.” It seems like Oberst was possibly planning on using the song as a happy note to end the album. However, the reason why it was scrapped is obvious. The song would be dwarfed on either side of the incredibly epic and personal revelation in the ten minute “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves.”
A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997
This release is not much more than its title would lead you to think. As simply a group of songs that are lovely little adolescent sketches and experiments, they range from sweet and charming to painful to listen to. For those who read deep into Oberst’s lyrics, there’s not much that’s terribly illuminating, and as a collection they don’t have as much instruction or hold together as well as a proper album.
Most of the songs are Oberst with an acoustic guitar, with occasional over-modulated wailing, and it can get pretty repetitive. The instrumentals are interesting, especially how “Driving Fast Through a Big City at Night” seems to capture just that. The sounds belong in a toy shop and it’s something that would’ve been nice to see integrated more into the band’s regular songs on more synth-heavy albums like Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, but they vanished into the end of the ’90s.
There are few other interesting moments of instrumentation that are unique to the Bright Eyes catalog. For instance, “Falling Out of Love at this Volume” stands out because of the drum machine, fuzzy guitar, Oberst’s rare calm attitude and the blaring organ at the end. Oberst attempts some early philosophical reflection on “I Watched You Taking Off,” behind samples of rain and thunder and someone screaming. The one stand out song is “Feb. 15th,” which also appears on the collection’s worthier companion, Noise Floor. Something about the low fidelity, the girl’s sweet off-time accompaniment and even the marble rolling around in the guitar at the beginning, makes the birthday song maybe a bit more touching than the studio-recorded version. It might even be Oberst’s mom who says, “That’s pretty,” near the end of the song.
The continued existence of the collection in the Saddle Creek record store was always a bit puzzling, particularly when Oberst was trying to distance himself from all the heavy associations Bright Eyes had gathered. It always seemed more of an offering to rabid fans who couldn’t get their hands on any physical copies of Water or Soundtrack to My Movie, Oberst’s teen cassette releases. Bright Eyes fans have quite a reputation as well. The reason why the video mentioned in the opening exists is because there are plenty of fanatics. Droves of them pushing past you toward the stage to be close enough to reach out and touch Oberst or hoards waiting for him after the shows, trying to get something from him and they’re not even sure what it is. There are also some videos out there that feature fans jumping on stage and bowing down in front of Oberst before they are carted off by security (here at about 2:24). Plenty of kids around Oberst’s age at the time he was writing were happier to take heavy doses of Bright Eyes instead of chemical balancing medications.
It was those sorts of fanatical demonstrations that helped generate a misunderstanding of Bright Eyes. Maybe people couldn’t deal with Oberst’s shaky voice and wondered, “What type of person would actually like listening to this?” Maybe they put on a record and couldn’t get past the first track’s patented sketch or sound experiment and quickly turned it off. Maybe they heard a record playing as they walked past their floor-mate’s dorm room and saw them curled up in their bed in solitude, then shook their heads and walked on. Maybe they met a fan who they assumed would be shy and polite and were surprised by the type of solipsism and self-absorption that Oberst is frequent to admit. Whatever it was, Bright Eyes is usually written off quickly by the types of people who can’t understand the line “the pleasure that my sadness brings” from Fevers & Mirrors’ “Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh.”
In the early 2000s, “emo” music became quickly commercialized and a lot of bands thought they had to write whiny break up songs, dye their hair black and buy all their wardrobe at Hot Topic in order to sell records. The movement of fashion and music was widely despised and berated by nearly every other demographic. The unfortunate thing about it was that anything that was even the littlest bit sad was immediately grouped into this faux genre. If you search reviews from 1999-2002 of his records, you’ll find plenty littered with presumptions from Oberst’s previous rock bands, like Commander Venus, as well as comments about his age and inexperience and how overall annoying he sounds. The only thing Bright Eyes really has in common with emo is that it has never been cool to like Bright Eyes. Even hipsters roll their eyes when it comes up after they ask you to rattle off your favorite music. But that was also another great thing, if you were a proud fan, you beat shame on more than one level.
In the end, all of the nonsense that weighed on Bright Eyes’ credibility really had little to do with the music. Once you come to terms with the voice and really sit down and listen to what this guy is saying and how he is saying it, none of the rest matters. Each album, even from the very beginning is full of motifs and mind boggling fourth wall wrecking balls befitting of a neurotic literary classic. Each album creates its own universe with tons to explore and new things to discover with each listen.
Fevers & Mirrors
At its very simplest, Fevers & Mirrors is the ultimate breakup album. At its most complicated moments, a spurned lover becomes a catalyst for an introspection so deep that it comes to question the purpose of life itself. In complete contrast to Letting Off the Happiness, the album is meticulously calculated, the symbols planted carefully throughout to cleverly enhance or redefine them. They come up organically too, and aren’t heavy handed or maybe it’s better to say that the album doesn’t beat you over the head with them, which is a shortcoming of most concept albums. Fevers & Mirrors is a more tightly crafted and completely self-contained inward journey than any other Bright Eyes record. The cover is a perfect example of how well developed and three dimensional it is. In the middle of some plumb wallpaper is a cut-out hole with a little bit of shiny foil behind it. The meaning is evident and is maybe even a warning: The point of this album is reflection and you must participate.
So, forget all those preconceptions surrounding it and start the journey. Like the psychic says in the beginning of the album Cassadaga, “Pack the things that you think you’re going to need and then just go.” So, make sure you have your fever and your mirror in your backpack. Don’t worry, along the way you’ll find other tools like weighing scales, clocks, calendars, suns and patches of grass for you to hide in.
Start the first track. A little girl will stumble over her words slowly as she is being taught how to read. Be patient. You’ve got nothing else to do, so learn how to read. The story is Mitchell is Moving by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and it is about a couple of dinosaurs, one of which is moving and the other that has to deal with someone leaving him. It’s an apt oversimplification for beginning a breakup album. As the fever sets in, lay down on the bed. Oberst will sing and his voice will crack and fall out of pitch. Deal with it. It will be slow and it will be depressing. Learn how to read. Listen to what he is saying and trying to show you.
A girl will bring you water to cool your head. Her name is Arienette. Her necklace will dangle over your head in front of the light from the ceiling fan. Think about what it means. If you want her to, she’ll make you your own necklace out of beads of sweat for you to take as you begin your descent inward and your consciousness fades out. The place that you emerge into is a strange subconscious wonderland where statues of girls can turn you into sand and cartoon calendars come to life only to commit suicide. There are moments of big band gusto, but mostly lonely acoustics with a few strangely synthesized melodies to be your soundtrack.
The thing about Fevers & Mirrors-land is that the emotion is more palpable and more believable than on any other record. After Bright Eyes started to become synonymous with sorrow, Oberst started making a conscious effort to pull back and it was the main goal behind his departure from the name during his solo project pilgrimage. But as a second album with no stereotype or standard, Oberst had no reason not to let himself go and get deep into it. He is filled with youthful passion, encountering these questions in life for the first time and finding them unacceptable and revolting against them. The album could represent a loss of innocence as a lot of the later albums have less fury and are more resigned to the way of the universe.
“Take it Easy (Love Nothing)” on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn relates the story of the genesis ofOberst’s “Lua” style sociopathy with the mentality of, “I do as I please / I lie through my teeth / Someone might get hurt, but it won’t be me.” He spends a night with a girl and, “on a cartoon cat pad / she scratched with a pen / everything is as it’s always been / this never happened. ” The discography can also be seen as an ongoing story, with each album being another chapter. Fevers & Mirrors might be the moment in that story when that one-night stand (didn’t) happen and it could also be the breakup that is plaguing the record. The lyric concludes, “I laid back down, wrapped myself up in the sheets / And I must have looked like a ghost, because something frightened me / Since then I’ve been so good at vanishing.”
A perfect example of Oberst’s honest fury is “The Calendar Hung Itself…,” one of the few songs from that period that the band still plays live. There’s that childlike stubbornness about not accepting the way that things are, or accepting a breakup and moving on, and it makes the narrator do strange things like put on his ex-girlfriend’s shoes. It’s confused and strange, like a kid who is suddenly having an epiphany about the reality of the world. There’s a girl with a broken jaw in a tomato field telling secrets. A clear interpretation of these lyrics still has yet to surface. What secret is concealed there? How exactly was it concealed? Were they burying a body? And how do you kiss a girl with a broken jaw? There’s also an allusion to an event that appears in other lyrics, such as “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” which is taking too many pills with whiskey and winding up in a Chicago hospital. He sings in “The Calendar Hung Itself…,” “I was determined in Chicago, but I dug my teeth into my knees / and I settled for a telephone, sang into your machine…”
The girl in “The Calendar Hung Itself…” is one of the only three times that the words “bright eyes” come up, although reversed, in all of Oberst’s lyrics. Perhaps the girl who he sings, “had eyes bright enough to burn me / they reminded me of yours” is the same in Letting Off the Happiness’ “June on the West Coast.” In that song she is an imaginary lover who Oberst is longing for as he walks with a real girl, singing, “I thought about my true love, the one I really need / with eyes that burn so bright, they make me pure.” On Fevers & Mirrors, she finally gets a name and a song, “Arienette.”
It’s a beautifully written tragedy where people are grouped into covens according to their emotional tendencies. There are “the fragile,” “the sad,” “the angry” and “the wicked,” all reflections of the singer himself. They’re all trying to survive in an ancient world where wolves are rampant and could probably swallow them in one gulp. Just like the girl who cures his fever in “A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever, and A Necklace,” Arienette is the only one who can protect him from the wolves. She represents more than just his ideal lover, she represents meaning. At the very end of “Sunrise, Sunset,” a song about the meaningless monotony of daily life, he calls, “Where are you Arienette?”
You know that Arienette is entirely fictional, because Oberst tells you so himself in a radio sketch at the end of “An Attempt to Tip the Scales.” Well, it might not be Oberst himself, as many say he is portrayed by The Faint’s Todd Fink and the radio presenter is Matt Silcock from Lullaby for the Working Class. Yet it’s hard to think that the sketch also wasn’t meticulously planned as it carefully explains everything happening in the album and as such is more of an essential component to the album than just a bit of fun. Although, it is hilarious, such as when “Oberst” breaks the fourth wall to ask the DJ to stop the synthesized tones that have been playing in the background since the song ended.
The sketch not only concisely explains all of the albums themes and symbols, but it also exemplifies all of Oberst’s internal contradictions and confusions. When he is asked to explain who Arienette is, he says he doesn’t want to go into it, in case she might be listening, but also follows up by saying he made her up. It makes no sense, but you completely understand. You feel the same thing Oberst felt when he was writing the album. Yet, when the radio guy says he doesn’t understand, Oberst says he doesn’t either and, in an act of sarcastic self-conscious criticism of his youth, he says, “after I grow up, I will.”
Yet, the DJ is as important of a character, if not more important than Oberst. He embodies the exact response that Oberst hopes people don’t have to his records. His replies to Oberst’s well thought out, personal answers are brief and keep the two from having a real conversation. He’ll say, “That’s interesting,” at inappropriate times and you know that he doesn’t really think it’s interesting. He’s also a commentary on the music industry as a machine. The type of person who doesn’t really care about the musician’s answers, who throws out false praise about the record when they’ve never listened to the music, who is more concerned about their own career. It’s most evident when Oberst asks him how long he’s been working at the station and he says just a couple of minutes, since their interview began. When Oberst tries to connect with him, asking him what he feels about the music, the presenter responds with Oberst’s greatest fear by saying, “I’m feeling sick.”
Then, the DJ brings up “Padraic, My Prince,” from the last record, Letting Off the Happiness. Making a joke of it, Oberst says that he had not one, but five brothers who died by drowning in a bathtub, but he only wrote one song for them collectively. Even the DJ laughs, but Oberst retorts, “No, I’m serious.” The song already has a depth of meaning, but Oberst uses it again to explain his conflicted feelings about the reason why he makes music the way he does and about sadness in general. He tells a story about how he used to push a safety pin into his arm when he was a kid, so he would cry and get attention. He says he loves the burn of the audience’s eyes, yet gets nauseous when people look at him. It’s a confusing and intriguing contradiction he establishes. Is expressing sadness just a way to make people notice so you can feel better or is it a way to isolate yourself from a cruel world and get rid of your feelings through catharsis? Empathy or sympathy? It’s a question that could also be applied to suicide. Sadness or suicide?
The Japanese version of the record features two additional tracks that are really interesting, because they aren’t just tacked on at the end, but have a specific place within the album. They’re both just Oberst with an acoustic guitar and can be hard to get through, but they’re worth a listen. “The Joy of Discovery” only repeats over and over, “Why do you lay in the grass? / Don’t you want to be found?” It mirrors the end of “The Calendar Hangs Itself…,” where the temporary lovers “have pulled me from the grass where I was laid.” Like most symbols, the grass is flexible. It could be sloth or it could be death or it could be something else altogether. The other is “Jetsabel Removes the Undesirables,” which is a long poetic epic about a woman named Jetsabel, helping the singer after a breakup. It also contains references to the grass, to Arienette and even her “bright eyes,” the proper way around. Why the songs were removed is uncertain, but it was probably to lighten up the record a bit.
At the beginning of the journey, an important question posed in “A Scale, A Mirror, and These Indifferent Clocks” is, “When the page of a calendar is turned it’s no more / So, tell me then what was it for?” It’s one of the main questions for the album that everyone has to ask once in a while about why they are doing what they are doing and where they are going. It’s something that can be viewed as a little childish, a girl breaking up with you makes you think your life is meaningless. He’s even self-aware of that, in “Sunrise, Sunset” saying, “hold your sadness like a puppet, keep putting on the play.” If the answer to the aforementioned question is “nothing,” then “Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh” poses another question: “We keep coming back / to this meaning that I lack / He says the choices were given / Now you must live them / or just not live / But do you want that?” Then, “An Attempt to Tip the Scales” gives the reason why the whole adventure was necessary in the first place, “So close to dying that I finally can start living.”
Fevers & Mirrors is a lofty album with ridiculously high ambitions that are evident from the start, especially for a 20 year old. The album fades out with Oberst laughing at himself and accepting his inevitable mediocrity in a sweet song about hope and finding a way to deal with it all, “A Song to Pass the Time.” He looks out at all the people around him, family and strangers, people singing in the shower or Mexican kids on the street “laughing in a language I don’t understand,” helping each other get by. At the end of it all, be it sympathy or catharsis, attention of solitude, he uses music just to conquer those indifferent clocks, to pass the time as simply as the song’s title suggests. The tune also contains a really beautiful image, “She sends me pictures of the ocean in an envelope.” Yet, somehow those obscure images of just water, with not even a beach or a seagull in frame, give him hope and he sings, “Yes, I can be healed / There is someone looking for what I concealed / in my secret drawer, in my pockets deep / you will find the reasons that I can’t sleep / And you will still want me.”
Letting Off the Happiness
Letting Off the Happiness is surprisingly diverse, if not just plain odd, and really the least like a Bright Eyes album…or perhaps the most. Oberst changed his sound for each following record, but never strayed too far from the tropes and rules of whatever genre he was playing with. Lifted had a lot of country moments (not including “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”), I’m Wide Awake was more rootsy folk, Digital Ash was about plugging in, on Cassadaga there was an effort to be “happier” and celebrate Americana and The People’s Key finally saw Bright Eyes playing some emo music, albeit a decade too late. Fevers & Mirrors wasn’t necessarily emulating any particular style and did contain some of the odd digital noises from its precursor, but it was a pretty rigidly structured album.What’s great about Letting Off the Happiness is that there are no rules. Oberst wasn’t playing country or folk or electronic music and didn’t have to follow the Bright Eyes tropes that he later abandoned the name to get away from, he was just playing music. With that in mind, Letting Off the Happiness could have the truest “Bright Eyes sound.”
For how many accessible parts there are to the record, it’s surprising that it doesn’t garner more attention (or praise). The cover is a delectably ironic companion to the title. The sound is weird and quirky and less blatantly sorrowful. The album has a significant amount of electronic elements. There are way more songs about sex.It has philosophical literary references (“Tereza and Thomas” are characters from Milan Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being”). It’s obscure “older stuff.” The drummer on a majority of the album is even Jeremy Barnes from Neutral Milk Hotel for Chrissake.
The one thing that probably keeps the album from standing out is the same thing that makes it unique in the catalog. Being more spontaneous and flowing from Oberst’s subconscious, it doesn’t tell quite as much of a concentrated story as the other albums, has less motifs and it’s missing those key clever lines that hook the listener and help open a door into the music. Listening to it is kind of like wandering through a cloud or a dream, especially the slurred reprise of “Contrast and Compare” at the end of “Tereza and Thomas.” Or maybe it’s like floating through a field of pink fireworks.
Paired with the title, it’s almost as if the little circular bursts on the cover are what it looks like when happiness is released. It’s actually a Japanese silkscreened craft paper, called Chiyogami, meaning thousand generation paper. It depicts fireworks festivals called Hanabi Taikai, in which families picnic in kimonos, sharing sushi and sake. I came across it one day randomly in a little crafting supply shop in Beacon Hill in Boston (don’t ask me what I was doing there, because I will say I was looking for a paper to make a worry box) and I was dumbfounded.
The cover seems to embody what Oberst says during the radio sketch on Fevers & Mirrors, that he wants to be the “warm yellow light that pours over everyone I love.” For all the dark moments on Bright Eyes albums, there are always moments of light and it’s even a juxtaposition that Oberst comments on frequently. The existentialist writer Albert Camus said “In the depth of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” The onset of a spring that takes forever to come is a big theme on Letting Off the Happiness.
The most important track on the album is probably “Padraic, My Prince.” It generated one of the craziest myths for fans out of anything that Oberst has written. The song has a lot of elements. It’s a cathartic way of letting off the guilt of doing something selfish and hurting someone you love, like leaving a baby unattended in a bath. Yet looking closer, it’s a way for Oberst to talk about suicide. In his guilt, he drinks himself silly and passes out on the bathroom floor. Then, he’s in a coma in a hospital, probably in Chicago. Similar to the yellow bird in “Poison Oak,” Padraic might represent the people he feels guilty for hurting by doing something selfish, like trying to kill himself.
Despite songs like this, a majority of the album is mellower and less frantic and tearful than Fevers & Mirrors or Lifted. That’s what was also different about it. Unlike a lot of other material, Oberst didn’t seem to be searching for happiness, but a more Buddhist type of contentment. There are a few times that phones come up in songs from this period. Like in “The Difference in the Shades” where he says he’s going to sleep in the garden, because “there’s no clocks or phones to wake us up.” He wants to get away from the outside world and be ok with being lonely. He says, “Because I have learned that nothing is as pressing / As the one who is pressing would like you to believe / And I am content to walk a little slower / Because there is nowhere that I really need to be.”
As for spring, the month of June seems to be where the action is, as the month is the perfect time for “garden sleeping” and another standout track, “June on the West Coast.” It’s a really sweet and simple guitar-only song that has similarities to the love song “First Day of My Life” on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Yet, it’s messier and not as structured and in that, it has an undeniable charm. Even when Oberst talks about his broken heart or thinks about dying, it doesn’t seem so bad. He says, “Sorrow gets too heavy and joy it tends to hold you / with the fear that it eventually departs.” Getting rid of happiness seems like a liberating thing. If you realize you don’t need happiness you won’t be held captive by the fear of losing it.
In a backwards journey through the Bright Eyes discography, if Fevers & Mirrors is a dramatic climax, then the way that Letting Off the Happiness picks up the same emotions from “An Attempt to Tip the Scales” makes it the perfect denouement.