Conor Oberst, ULU, London
Monday 22 November 2004
As he scratched his head and arms, mumbling half-hearted introductions to songs, it was hard to equate the 24-year-old singer-songwriter with the title bestowed on him by Newsweek - voice of a generation.
Earlier this month Conor Oberst had the two best-selling singles in the US - his intimate "Lua" and its more layered, electro-based cousin "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" - a feat last achieved by Puff Daddy seven years ago. What excited the US magazine, though, was October's Vote for Change tour. Oberst was on stage, exchanging verses from Patti Smith's "People Have The Power" with Michael Stipe and Bruce Springsteen. So had the baton, as Newsweek claimed, been passed from one generation of musical polemicists to the next?
Oberst seemed keen to scotch the idea straight away as he took to the stage, solo, with just one acoustic guitar that he continually had to tune up. This was a major departure - he usually records and performs as Bright Eyes, and his brand of country- and folk-based rock relies on a fertile, self-reliant Midwest music scene based around his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
Although he was timid between songs, his spare guitar style was captivating, with even his dampened chords worth listening out for. It was immediately clear, though, that the performer's chief weapon was his voice. Despite his hunched shoulders, he managed to sound tremulous and strident at the same time, bringing to mind American Music Club's tortured Mark Eitzel.
Oberst's set came mainly from the pair of albums he is due to release in January. Following on from his two singles, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is an acoustic set, while Digital Ash in a Digital Urn sees him experiment with electronica. No fanfare was needed, as the new songs were trim and fighting fit. "At the Bottom of Everything", a snide sideswipe at contemporary mores in a simple Woody Guthrie style, was the most forceful number of the evening. This was a relief - on his 2002 breakthrough record, Lifted, a set of rambling, confessional stories, many of the songs clocked in at over five minutes.
Yet two albums' worth of material was not enough for him to play with, and Oberst produced a music stand for more recently written lyrics. "When The President Talks To God" was his impassioned riposte to the US election. There were moments of light relief as Oberst stumbled over the freshly minted lines, but he still got appreciative cheers when he asked: "Is every- thing so black and white?"
Even though Oberst wouldn't acknowledge current events, war was a dark cloud that hung over much of the gig, with an awareness of wider conflicts leeching into even his tender confessions. "Land Locked Blues", his most ambitious song yet, meditated on the virtues of walking away first from a relationship and then, via the startling image of making love while images of soldiers fighting flicker on TV, to stepping back from more bloody battles.
This sort of heart-on-the-sleeve honesty should appeal to Springsteen fans, but they're likely to find the lacerating self-loathing less palatable. On previous albums, Oberst has sung openly of drink problems and suicidal thoughts. He may have put the latter behind him, but on "Lua" he sings: "The medication may kill us, but at least it numbs the pain."
The new songs were too ambitious to take in at one sitting, though the impression was that they would not become anthems any time soon. But while Oberst's freewheeling muse doesn't allow him to write anything straightforward, some of his snatched couplets are more lucid than whole albums by his peers. If Oberst is aiming for voice-of-a-generation status, it is with stealth rather than overwhelming force.
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