Conor Oberst’s poetically innovative style on a path similar to that of Bob Dylan’s
By: Cat Nuwer
Bob Dylan was king of the folk scene in the mid-sixties. In ’68, he produced an album of his greatest hits, featuring unconventional songs “Rainy Day Women” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Dylan’s next project, Nashville Skyline, embodied his country roots, presenting Johnny Cash with Dylan in a duet version of “Girl from the North Country”. Four decades later in 2008, eccentric singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, frontman of Bright Eyes, released his self-titled album recorded with the Mystic Valley Band; yet, the album contrasts with Oberst’s notable work with Bright Eyes. Since the beginning of Bright Eyes, comparisons have been made between Oberst and Dylan; in Adam Z. Winer’s “The Next Dylan?”, Winer compares Bright Eyes’s folk-inspired Cassadaga album to the legendary work of Dylan and writes that Oberst is the “closest incarnation of the folk icon we’re going to get”. Yet, fans of both artists are hesitant to categorize the two as comparable musicians. In no way is Conor Oberst merely the ‘new Bob Dylan’. Nevertheless, the two musicians do have distinct similarities.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was Dylan’s second album and introduced hits such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”; although Dylan’s first album was not an immediate success, The Freewhelin’ Bob Dylan spurred on a new folk genre because of the album’s poetic realism – a contradiction to popular music styles of the time. Through this album, Dylan established a reputation as a poet; discovering personal interpretations of Dylan’s lyrics is an integral part of listening to his songs. For instance, the meaning of “Blowin’ in the Wind” differs from person to person; some argue that it is about war and others argue that it is introspective and more about self-discovery. Other songs such as “Girl from the North Country” and “Tangled Up In Blue” follow a story; these stories are a significant aspect of Dylan’s style. Some narratives chronicle real stories, such as “The Hurricane”, which is an account of Rubin Carter, a boxer charged for murder, whom Dylan believed was innocent and unjustly charged on a basis of prejudice. Along with Dylan’s tremendous harmonica skills, his lyrics and stories framed an illustrious reputation that attracted listeners looking for fresh music.
In Bright Eyes’s first album, A Collection of Songs, Oberst experimented with an assortment of sounds; he went on to establish Bright Eye’s style by employing reflective and unusual lyrics while mixing synthesized pieces with traditional instruments in Letting off the Happiness. Lifted gained national attention with songs “Bowl of Oranges” and “Lover, I Don’t Have to Love”. “Bowl of Oranges” popularized Oberst’s poetic skills; like in Dylan’s introspective songs, the meaning of “Bowl of Oranges” cannot be defined in a single way. In spite of that, Oberst explains his motivation for writing within the song: “But when crying don’t help and you can’t compose yourself / It is best to compose a poem, an honest verse of longing or simple song of hope. / That is why I’m singing…” Oberst also narrates stories that are similar to Dylan’s, like in Bright Eyes’s “At the Bottom of Everything.” Oberst establishes an inimitable style with obscure and distinctive lyrics.
Dylan and Oberst challenge their listeners, daring them to employ the figments of imagination by piecing a story together and constructing a personal interpretation. In their own way, Dylan and Oberst have defied convention by pioneering their own folk-inspired genres. At the core of the comparison is the fact that both Dylan and Oberst are both innovative poets and artists, unable to really be defined, yet both able to change the course of music.