Bright Eyes performed at the Enmore Theatre on Tuesday, 24th October. Joseph Earp reviews.
For a generation of fans, the voice of Bright Eyes‘ Conor Oberst has been there for more than half their lives. Oberst’s battered and bruised singing style has always elevated the group beyond their emo folk peers, turning his Dylan-esque lyrics into something snaking, strange, and frequently sublime. Scratch away the veneer of almost too-clever choruses about favourite neon signs, and there it is: the needling, reedy voice of a man who has decided that he has no choice but to lay it all on the line.
Bright Eyes – ‘Poison Oak’
Time has done nothing to reduce that voice, nor the songs that surround it. Bright Eyes’ Australian tour is being billed as their first in “forever”, and the spectre of days and years passed was impossible to ignore from the Sydney show’s first note. We’re all older now, and Oberst is too – he cracked jokes about his failing eyesight, his hair lank, freewheeling spasmodically from song to song.
The setlist touched on the band’s entire discography. ‘Poison Oak’, one of their more emotionally devastating songs, made a surprise appearance after an audience member bellowed out a request for it. Long-time favourites like ‘Lua’ and ‘First Day Of My Life’ rippled next to newer cuts. Although the execution was hardly precise, there was a kind of methodical attention paid to the back catalogue.
Oberst’s voice occasionally dropped out, the band around him lurching as they turned ‘Lover I Don’t Have To Love’ into an almost unbearable slog through self-destruction and self-sabotage. But who wants tidiness when you have Bright Eyes? The audience didn’t so much sing along as they howled along, and the songs, made anew in the live context, cut harder, demanded more, hurt more.
‘Lua’, one of the band’s gentler songs, turned into a mess of duelling trumpets, as Oberst crawled his way to the back of the stage, and briefly handed over vocal duties to his long-serving drummer, Maria Taylor.
Yes, we’re all older – no longer are we the teenagers who found in Oberst’s voice a release for the things we most disliked about ourselves, and a promise that we might not get better, but we could get softer. But the songs, if anything, have become more powerful for those precise reasons.
Some things don’t go away. It’s a wicked world out there at the moment, made worse by the realisation that it’s perhaps always been that way. And amid that cruelty – the kind of monumental, structural indifference that Bright Eyes tore apart on ‘Road To Joy’ all those years ago – there was, if not peace, then something like love, buried in the sound of Oberst’s voice saying, with trembling sincerity, “It still feels this way to me / Does it still feel this way to you?”