Bright Eyes
w/Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, Neva Denova
Thurs Feb 17, Paramount, 7 pm, $21-$25, all ages.

For those not fortunate enough to subscribe to cultural lightning rods like Spin magazine, have I got news for you: 2004 was--to borrow an appropriately inane turn of phrase--the Year Indie Rock Broke. (And all I got was this stupid chip on my shoulder.) For the sake of legality, it may be best to put the term "Indie Rock" into customary quotation marks, as much of the folks cited with the big push of 2004 are independent in name alone--former indie elites turned major label (I'll say it) sell-outs like Modest Mouse, Rilo Kiley, and Death Cab for Cutie competing with faux-indie bands like Franz Ferdinand and the Killers for late-night TV guest appearances--but we'll chalk that up to a technicality. From commercial radio to advertising firms, mainstream media has momentarily decided that independent music should be awarded with another glimmer of a chance at mass exposure--and they've done so just in time for Bright Eyes to sell 100,000 records on an independent label in a single week. May god help us all.

It might be interesting (or foolish, or both) then to take a look at just who might be poised for rock and roll martyrdom--who might be taking home the lamented "voice of a generation" nod--in case this actually does turn out to be the best push this decade's mass media has to offer. And with his inexplicable dominance of the Billboard singles chart last November (claiming the number one and number two spots on the singles sales charts simultaneously, beating out Usher and Alicia Keyes), Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst is primed to be "the next Bob Dylan" for at least a few years more to come. And more power to him, I suppose: Bright Eyes' latest two records, recently released together, Use Your Illusion-style, have been receiving raves from thirsty journalists the world over in the past few weeks (most of which, incidentally, beginning with hand-washing assurances like "I, um, totally always hated Bright Eyes… UNTIL RIGHT NOW!")--who all seem to be saying crazy, overzealous shit like "Conor Oberst is the greatest songwriter since Jesus," or whatever. The only problem is, in I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst is writing some of the most lackluster songs he's written since he was 15.

Over the course of his admittedly rocky career, I've been something of a blushing apologist for Conor Oberst's many missteps. Taken early with his histrionics, his narcissism, his self-flagellation, my relationship with Bright Eyes has long been one of adolescent dysfunction--a seemingly endless cycle of forgiving the unforgivable, excusing the inexcusable, and overlooking the ineluctable for the faintest pearls of reciprocity--embarrassed every time his artistic course drunkenly stumbled, every time he shouted something stupid in front of my friends. He'd play that tortured, quaver-voiced façade, and I'd somehow fall for it every time. It was an ugly relationship, and with his recent duo of releases, I'm happy to say that it is finally over. In I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, we find Conor facing "maturation"--a process which in this case means largely tempering the uproarious bombast of previous records for boring duets with Emmylou Harris (who should be ashamed) about being hip, young, and living in New York. And without that stupid youthful explosion to cover it up, "maturity" looks an awful lot like "asinine songwriting." Digital Ash in a Digital Urn returns us a bit to the immaturity of yesteryear, but the temper-tantrum relief is short-lived--marrying Oberst's worn-out couplets with clunky "electronics." By the end of the two, it's uncomfortably clear that Oberst exhausted the worthy elements of project Bright Eyes about five minutes before the world made him indie rock's new figurehead.

It's this that makes the press' newfound love affair with him ultimately so frustrating: Conor Oberst has grown into an immature and relatively uninspired songwriter who's been lucky enough to fill a vacuum of a media hungry for an easy savior. I for one refuse to accept that a halfhearted, self-satisfied folk singer with a bleak Peter Pan complex is the new voice of my generation just because they prop him up on a stage next to Bruce Springsteen and call him "the next Bob Dylan." I mean, does anybody really want another Bob Dylan?