Sunday, September 13, 2009
#109. 'Some sad singers they just play tragic'
Bright Eyes "Lover I Don't Have to Love"
There were plenty of artists that underwent some sort of critical re-appraisal in the 00s, either on a large scale or in smaller circles. It's not uncommon, sometimes an artist's early work isn't worth praising but their evolution into something more worthwhile results in a more informed look back, but in some cases is still strikes me as abrupt. Take the almost 180 degree change in most critic's stance on Conor Oberst that happened around 2005. Sure, praise for 2002's Lifted was fairly universal, but it was also guarded in a way that the proclamations of Oberst being to my generation what Dylan was to my parents' weren't. I never bought into that side of they hype, but the 2005 double shot of I'm Wide Awake and It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn did do a lot to soften my own stance on Oberst's Bright Eyes project. Once I realized that the only thing that set them apart from Lifted was a bit less bloat and more polish I did my own slight reappraisal, not to the extent that the likes of Pitchfork did but enough to make me realize that I'd been being a bit unfair to earlier Bright Eyes material.
I still have my reservations about a lot of it, mainly Oberst's overly dramatic vocals along with an excess of ambition that occasionally makes for a messy product, but it's easier to see the good within it now than it was back in 2003 when I first heard Lifted. It could be my shift towards appreciation of the instrumental aspects of music first and foremost that helped with that, but part of me just thinks my initial hesitancy was reactionary anti-"emo" sentiments. Oberst's vocals were whiny, his songs were overtly emotional and not in a good way, there wasn't any readily obvious motion to the album etc etc. A few years later I'd start coming around to it, and I think "Lover I Don't Have to Love" was the first song that clicked for me. I may have liked "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" more in the end, but "Lover" was the first time I remotely got what the album was really going for.
It makes sense that the most straightforward song on the album would be the one to hook me, but what really made "Lover I Don't Have to Love" stand out was the fact that it was so low key. Oberst never got too whiny or too dramatic with the vocals, the instrumental accompaniment was understated and simple and the overall flow of the song was logical and didn't waste too much time on unnecessary tangents. It was a distillation of the stuff the first four tracks had gotten right without the stuff that they got wrong to cloud it up. In that way "Lover I Don't Have to Love" is the key to enjoying Lifted, or at least the song that would work best as an introduction to it for a newcomer. The fact that it's unambiguously depressing may be a hurdle, but if you can see the quality of the song underneath it it makes Lifted a lot easier to take.
'Unambiguously depressing' may seem like an odd way to describe a song about a one night stand, or maybe not depending on your stance on the ol' cum-n-go, but the depressing part isn't the one night aspect but the unwillingness to forge any sort of connection. That part starts off mutually, the male half proclaiming that he 'want[s] a girl who's too sad to give a fuck' but as the songs goes it becomes more obvious that he wants more, finding all manner of excuses to keep the assignation going into the night but getting shut down at each turn. The second verse might well be the best description of increasingly pathetic behavior I've heard, especially the pleading 'Let's just keep touching/let's just keep singing' that closes it off, and when it's cut down with a reversal of the first chorus it's at once refreshing and kind of depressing at the same time.
It culminates with the remarkably restrained outro section, where the reason for the emotional disconnection is laid out fairly plainly and with remarkable restraint: 'Love's an excuse to get hurt/and to hurt/d'you like to hurt?' The sentiment's a little cliched, for sure, but Oberst doesn't apply his usual dramatic croon to the line, which makes it go down easier. It also makes it that much more of a climax when his voice rears up in the next lines, where the response to the 'd'you like to hurt?' comes in the form of a pair of increasingly desperate 'I do's. It's more of the same thing that's been outlined in the song already, the male part increasingly pathetically clinging to the hope that this can be more after being told it can't, but this time it's reciprocated, just barely, by the final line of the song: 'Then hurt me.' The key though is that it doesn't sound like reciprocation, it sounds like she's making a point about the way things have to be. If love means getting hurt you have to be willing to hurt as well, and if you can't say that you will it's not enough. It's not exactly the upbeat ending you're trained to expect but it's much better than that.
Coming up tomorrow: Things you don't expect from modern R 'n' B songs (and some things you do.)