Conor Oberst / Bright Eyes as Metamodern Troubador

Starting off as scraggly “bedroom rock” and known for singer Conor Oberst’s quavery but impassioned vocals, the band Bright Eyes followed an aesthetic that could mostly be called postmodern for its first few albums.  The music made use of pastiche technique (abruptly shifting between acoustic-guitar and electronic sounds) to shock the listener out of complacency and draw attention to lyrics that mainly presented complaints without emotional or conceptual resolution.

However, what began as an apparent movement toward metamodernism in 2004’s album Lifted*, reached its full blossom with 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.  The vocal quaver, which had distracted many listeners and critics, had matured into a powerful expressive tool that Oberst now employed with subtlety and discretion. The unexpected stylistic juxtapositions were still there, but now serving to bring things together, rather than pull things apart.  And the lyrics, while bearing witness to seemingly intractable problems such as political oppression, romantic failure, and even death, insist, ardently, on a playful sense of hope and poetic fun.

Here we take a listen/look at some choice passages from the second song on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, called “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” and propose some quick and dirty metamodern interpretations of those lines. Do watch the video if you’re not familiar with Oberst; part of the metamodern flavor definitely comes through his delivery and the soft, stumbling lullaby effect of the band’s performance.

And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares
How come you say it like you’re right?

^This can be read as a challenge to postmodern relativism.

You see stars that clear have been dead for years
But the idea just lives on

^Recognizing that the bright clarity of modernism has mostly faded, but still seeing a glimmer of it that cannot be extinguished.

The waitress looks concerned
But she never says a word
Just turns the jukebox on
And we hum along
And I smile back at her

^Even when there are no words, communication and connection can take place through art and through emotional gesture.

She took a small silver wreath and pinned it onto me
She said this one will bring you love
I don’t know if it’s true but I keep it for good luck

^Refusal to commit to one side or the other in the debate about belief, but emotionally leaning towards hope and magic while intellectually acknowledging skepticism.

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*A Bright Eyes concert  – part of the band’s tour for Lifted – appears as a significant event for two of the main characters in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom, which has been reviewed  as emblematic of a literary transition from postmodernism to metamodernism. The middle-aged buddies Walter Berglund and Richard Katz find themselves jarred from their complacent postmodern cynicism upon encountering Oberst’s earnestly passionate delivery, along with a new kind of attitude in a rock audience: “Katz could see it in their clothing, which bespoke none of the rage and disaffection of the crowds he’d been a part of as a youngster. They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being.” (page 392)

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