REVIEW: Bright Eyes: There is No Beginning to the Story EP
Bright Eyes: There is No Beginning to the Story EP [Saddle Creek, 2002]
Three words? Four heartcracking songs.
Earlier this year, I was sitting in a loft, chomping on an apple, and talking about Bright Eyes' heart and soul - Conor Oberst. "He's a really good songwriter," said my friend. "He's also a little much, sometimes," I replied. My friend agreed, nodding sagely, taking another bite from his Macintosh. "He'll grow out of it."
And he has.
There is No Beginning to the Story is the work of a vital, expressive songwriter - one who is not afraid to dig into his own loves and doubts, one who is not afraid to grow. There is a mellowness here that will relieve those who winced at the raw-throated cries on Letting Off the Happiness, but Oberst has not purged himself of blood and bile: the pain on "Messenger Bird's Song" quivers with the same strength as LOtH's "Padraic my Prince". Bright Eyes has matured from diary-scribbler to poet. "There are volumes in the forest no one reads aloud." The direction Oberst has taken with There is No Beginning... - and, presumably, the LP that is to follow later this year - owes little to the still-lofi struggling on 2000's Fevers and Mirrors, but rather takes a step forward from the chamberpop tone of last year's split with Son, Ambulance, Oh Holy Fools.
The disc opens with tape-squirks, the swell of organ, and then - like the cresting of a grey hill, the sudden reveal of a sungold village - a hammer dulcimer begins to beat out the voice of god. "The bystanders claimed they saw angels flying up and down the block." The clatter of snares martial His forces - or do they play a tattoo for His death? "The Beam" is a song of falling and freedom, Armageddon and rebirth. It's among the most self-contained songs Oberst has ever recorded - a journey from hotel cages to choral heights within under four minutes. We move from Purgatory to Heaven, and sprint along the edge of the world.
"Messenger Bird's Song" sets itself up as simple guitar-and-voice, an elegy for love and a desperate plea for acknowledgement. Though he does not overdub the vocals as he did on "The Beam", the folk agonizing here never becomes shrill. Oberst's voice shows a constant brittleness, but it does not break - instead, we waver on the edge of something, skirting a body of emotion that seems deep enough to drown in. As Conor approaches the chorus, the listener is blindsided by mandolin and bells, a ringing fugue of broken birdsong - it's organic and subtle, but it brings a swell of feeling that's absolutely extraordinary. "Smile at me and I will stay. / Start to cry and I'll go away./ Just please don't keep me waiting." "Messenger's Bird Song" is a lovesong for the already lost; a beautiful, beautiful tragedy.
The duet of "We Are Free Men" is a frustrating divergence; Oberst's vocal partner has a voice like damp leather, like a Late Show staffmember who asks to sing along with Dylan. When Oberst sings alone however, or is backed by softer voices, the track redeems itself: it's suicidal optimism, a blue-and-yellow brew of yearning and resignation; it's a piano footprint with cymbal glitter, a cargo ship that bobs slowly towards the sky. "Loose Leaves" throws out a New Pornographers keyboard riff, oldschool-fuzz vocals, and a stomping main melody; the chorus is broken-down pop, with horns to remind you that the words matter - this ain't throwaway. It's a eulogy for youth, and it captures the feelings of those summers where Things Change as few other songs ever have: "So I could scatter all my notebooks on the prep school lawn and disappear again into a summer's bliss / of staying out and sleeping in and getting drunk with my friends. / And that's gone and I know that it won't ever come back. / I accept."
On its own, There is No Beginning to the Story EP is outstanding, but it's only a snack - the four songs touch, they glitter, but they do not knock flat - they do not supernova and leave the listener blind. Each song is worth owning - each carries its own weight - but the masterpiece, one guesses, is the full-length that waits in the wings.