Bright Eyes, Somerset House, London

The boy who wore his heart on his sleeve
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The Independent Culture

If you're a little emotional - perhaps you're missing and longing for a loved one, or perhaps you're feeling unloved, unlonged-for and unmissed - and trying to keep a very British lid on it, then Bright Eyes, in an 18th-century courtyard, with one solitary star twinkling to the west in a cirrocumulus Canaletto sky, are really not the band to see.

In the same way that the Christian funeral service is carefully calculated to induce emotional catharsis, on the basis that "if you're gonna cry, you might as well cry now" (all that stuff about "the sun shall not strike thee by day, neither shall the moon by night" is written to bring the finality of death home to you, to set you off), Bright Eyes act as a kind of musical diuretic for the eyes. They ought to be available on the NHS (prescription only).

Conor Oberst, to recap, is the prodigious and still-young (24) singer-songwriter whose latest pair of simultaneously-released albums - the acoustic-based I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and the electronic Digital Ash In A Digital Urn - recently held number one and number two spot on the Billboard chart, despite being released on the tiny Saddle Creek label.

Bright Eyes' popularity in America is perhaps all the more astounding when you reflect that Oberst is openly an atheist and a lefty, as illustrated by two songs in tonight's set (both from Digital Ash). "I Believe In Symmetry" is introduced as "a spiritual song for secular people", and salutes the beauty of science and nature: "And so I raise my glass to symmetry/ To the second hand and its accuracy..." while "Light Pollution" is a tribute towards an older, politicised mentor: "Jonny Hobson was a good man/ He used to loan me books and mic stands/ He even got me a subscription to the Socialist Review/ Listening to records in his basement/ Old folk songs about the government/ 'It's love of money, not the market', he said, 'these fuckers push on you'..." It's his songs of love, though - unrequited, more often than not - which really cut to the bone. "I know I'm just the weather against your window/ As you sleep through a winter's dream..." he accepts, in "Ship In A Bottle" (introduced as a song about "the best kind of love there is, which is the one that's in your imagination"). "First Day Of My Life", meanwhile, culminates with an incredibly poignant metaphor for "settling" for second-best: "But I'd rather be working for a paycheck/ Than waiting to win the lottery..." For someone whose fearless soul-bearing is his prime appeal, it's confusing and disappointing that, for much of the show, Oberst hides away. Both literally (he takes the stage shrouded in a hoody) and aurally. Ten of tonight's 14 songs are from Digital Ash, and whereas the recorded version possesses a sparse minimalism, the interpretation by a pointlessly huge band (10 musicians, largely drafted from Saddle Creek labelmates, tonight's support act and Digital Ash collaborators The Faint, playing three keyboards, two drumkits, a cello, a violin and numerous guitars) is often a big messy noise. And if I want to see a band make a big messy noise, I can do that on the other 364 days of the year.

At 10.35pm, Oberst sends the musicians away, picks up his guitar, and plays a heartbreaking "Lover I Don't Have To Love" solo. It's easily the highlight of the night. Five minutes later he ushers them back, but they can't retrospectively ruin what we've heard.

As applause echoes around the cobbled quad, Oberst delivers a well-intentioned, if somewhat banal speech in response to the London bombings: "I believe in love, I believe in people, I believe in music... We've got to find a way to stop people hating each other." It's sentimental, in that way that Americans often are, but Conor's heart is in the right place (right there, on his sleeve).

After all, Oberst is a singer, not a rhetorician, and he says it far better in Bright Eyes' closing song. "Did it all get real?" he ponders on "Easy/Lucky/Free" in that unfairly-moving, just-about-to-cry timbre of his, "I guess it's real enough/ They got refrigerators full of blood/ Another century spent pointing guns at anything that moves..." Damn this pollen count to hell. Does anybody have a handkerchief?

s.price@independent.co.uk

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