Last week, Bright Eyes launched a new Instagram page and a hashtag, #BrightEyes2020. Both things seem to portend a comeback. The last we heard from the folk-rock band, they were touring behind 2011’s The People’s Key, one of the least well-received albums of their career. Since then, the group’s leader, Conor Oberst, has continued to put out music under his own name as well as a variety of side projects, most recently Better Oblivion Community Center with Phoebe Bridgers. But he’s never quite scaled the same heights as Bright Eyes during the band’s aughts-era heyday.
Like a lot of Bright Eyes fans, I was inspired by the band’s sudden social-media activity and cryptic hashtag to revisit their old records this week. Formed in 1995 by Oberst as a side project from his primary band at the time, Commander Venus, Bright Eyes eventually rose to prominence as one of the defining bands of indie’s folk-rock makeover in the ’00s, with Oberst’s emotionally intense and fearlessly verbose songs garnering comparisons to the most lauded singer-songwriters of a previous generation, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell.
The excitement sparked by Bright Eyes’ mysterious promotional activity suggests that those records have continued to resonate well past their Bush-era sell-by dates. But which albums hold up the best? To find out, I decided to rank Bright Eyes’ eight proper studio albums. Keep in mind: This does not include EPs or Bright Eyes’ 2002 holiday release, A Christmas Album. And it definitely does not count Oberst’s various solo albums and side bands. This is pure, straight-up Bright Eyes.
I’m wide awake, it’s morning, so let’s dive in!
8. Digital Ash In A Digital Urn (2005)
The unofficial “underrated” Bright Eyes record. Released simultaneously with the more commercial I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, Digital Ash is the chilly, electronic, “experimental” counterpart to its rootsy and inviting sister LP. My assumption was always that Oberst was giving himself some cover for the overt mainstream appeasement of I’m Wide Awake, which moved him definitively into an uncool NPR zone of feel-good Americana. But there’s something about Digital Ash that feels a little pre-fabricated — it’s a “curveball” in which the quote-marks around curveball are heavily emphasized. While I’m Wide Awake was viewed as Oberst’s Dylan homage, Digital Ash is his version of an ’80s Neil Young record — all self-conscious perversion and meta strangeness in service of alienating an audience that gets off on being alienated. If Digital Ash is underrated, it’s because it was designed to be that way.
7. The People’s Key (2011)
The actual “underrated” Bright Eyes record. The rep against The People’s Key is that it’s a slick modern rock record without any of the strangeness, fury, catharsis or off-kilter humor of previous Bright Eyes releases. I have subscribed to this point of view in the past — back in 2016, I described The People’s Key as “the first and only impersonal Bright Eyes record.” But I’ve warmed to it since then. With the exception of I’m Wide Awake, no Bright Eyes offers such an abundance of purely enjoyable ear candy. The People’s Key reimagines a different path for Bright Eyes, in which Oberst decides after Fevers And Mirrors to make his version of a NYC “return of rock” record in the wake of The Strokes and Interpol. For a band defined by its outsized ambition to make “change your f*cking life” albums, the relatively modest charms of The People’s Key might make it seem ephemeral. But sometimes you just want catchy jams with some clever turns of phrase, and on those counts The People’s Key delivers.
6. A Collection Of Songs Recorded 1995-1997 (1998)
Would it be a stretch to argue that Conor Oberst was the most dazzling child prodigy in popular music since Stevie Wonder? Not even contemporary wunderkinds like Billie Eilish and Lorde can claim to be as prolific or gifted at songwriting as young Conor was as a teenager. The actual quality of the songs on this compilation of home recordings, which functions as Bright Eyes’ debut, compared with the band’s other albums seems almost beside the point. Of course Oberst would soon grow by leaps and bounds beyond this music. But the fact that he could turn out sort-of perfect and seemingly effortless ’90s indie-rock tunes like “Falling Out Of Love At This Volume” at such a young age speaks to the incredible headwind he was able to whip up as he entered his golden era a few years later. In time, Oberst understandably distanced himself from this era, as everyone eventually does with their teenaged selves. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating and necessary snapshot of a prodigiously talented young man in the process of discovering his own voice.
5. Letting Off The Happiness (1998)
The conventional way of looking at Bright Eyes’ career arc is to trace the band’s evolution from middle-American emo freaks to folky indie-rock would-be world conquerers. However, when you go back to Bright Eyes’ first significant artistic statement, Letting Off The Happiness, you can see that the seeds for their entire career were there from the beginning. On the weirdo emo tip, the frantic “The City Has Sex” clearly points toward the apocalyptic nervous breakdowns of Fevers And Mirrors, while “June On The West Coast” is an early version of the wordy, heartfelt, and ingratiating Americana that would solidify Oberst’s indie fame circa I’m Wide Awake. Released when Oberst had reached the ripe old age of 18, Letting Off The Happiness essentially charts the rest of his career with incredible accuracy.
4. Fever And Mirrors (2000)
This is the moment when a segment of Bright Eyes’ fanbase will promptly take their phones or computers and hurl them against the wall. Precisely the sort of melodramatic gesture that would be favored by those who adore Bright Eyes’ most melodramatic album, and balk at it only coming in at No. 4. My friend and colleague Ian Cohen memorably described Fevers And Mirrors as “a record where seemingly every form of self-loathing is in play,” and he meant that as a compliment. It’s fair to say that if this album entered your life at a certain moment of time — post-puberty but pre-adulthood — it will probably always be the Bright Eyes music closest to your heart. It is their most unabashedly adolescent LP, even more than the albums that Oberst made when he was still an actual adolescent. Oberst himself has likened it to the first Violent Femmes album, “in the sense of when you’re a freshman in high school, somebody gives you a copy of it.” For me, I tend to feel a little steam-rolled whenever I put Fevers And Mirrors on. The crush is thrilling at first, and then suffocating.
3. Cassadaga (2007)
If I had more guts to stand up against the stans, I would put this bizarre, psychedelic country-rock fantasia at the top of my list. I’m not saying it’s the best Bright Eyes album, but it’s probably my favorite. A concept album of sorts, it’s an overstuffed travelogue that takes its title from a real-life community of psychics, palm-readers, and mediums in Florida. But it’s really a coded song-cycle about Oberst’s life and career from his teens through his late 20s, when all of a sudden he seemed much older than he was. The stress of being treated like a wispy messiah for a decade was finally getting to him, and he dumped all of that exhaustion into these grandly lush pocket symphonies that leave a bitter aftertaste. The song that sticks with me most is “If The Brakeman Turns My Way,” in which the former child prodigy finally sets aside his boundless ambition and fantasizes about wandering away from it all. It’s not a surprise that Bright Eyes subsequently went into hibernation after the next album.
2. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)
Earlier this week, I was transfixed by this video above of Bright Eyes performing on Austin City Limits in 2004, for an episode that aired about three months before the release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The band plays most of the unreleased future classic for what must be the youngest audience ever gathered for an ACL taping. Oberst is quietly intense and impossibly frail, but what comes through most strongly is the undeniable quality of the songs. It’s become fashionable to slag I’m Wide Awake as a corny remnant of the so-called hipster folk scene that came to define indie music in the mid-aughts. And, sure, if you want to accuse Oberst of classic-rock glory-dogging for recording duets with Emmylou Harris, you have more than enough ammo. But in the end, the songs hold all the way up: “Lua,” “Land Locked Blues,” “At The Bottom Of Everything,” and “First Day Of My Life” all became mixtape staples of the era for a damn good reason.
1. Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002)
Some Bright Eyes albums are a touch too emo. Others are a little too Americana. Lifted is the “just right” option. It is both the culmination of the band’s early period, when Oberst would wind up and hurl himself (emotionally speaking) into a brick wall over and over again, as well as the table-setting for the more mature albums they made in the mid-aughts and beyond. When considered in the context of Bright Eyes’ entire discography, it plays as a sampler of everything they ever did well, from finger-pointing folk (“Don’t Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come”) to crowd-pleasing indie-pop (“Bowl of Oranges”) to catchy/queasy synth-rock (“Lover I Don’t Have To Love”) to messianic punk (“Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved)). It’s an approachable collection of focused songs, and also dense with enough self-mythology to invite obsessive listening all these years later. It’s the sound of young dudes trying to make a masterpiece, and pretty much getting there.