Your first favourite band probably sucked. Mine did, so much so that I won’t even type what it was. (What gets published on the internet stays there forever.) Anyway, a more interesting question than “what was the first band you loved?” is “what was the first good band that you loved?” Not necessarily great, but good — an artist whose flaws might stick out more with the benefit of adult hindsight but whose music still doesn’t make you want to die of embarrassment.
Mine was Bright Eyes, the nominal “band” that was always essentially just a stage name for indie wunderkind Conor Oberst. (Whether these names give you shivers of recognition or are completely foreign, stick around, I’m trying to make a point that’s universal.) Part of my affinity for Oberst’s work — the part that hasn’t held up so well — felt pre-ordained: Like Oberst, I was a white dude, interested in the arts, from a Midwestern state, who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s and had a lot of feelings about it. I was the target demo, in other words, for a song like “If Winter Ends,” which climaxes with Oberst literally screaming “for the sunlight, or a car to take me anywhere / Just get me past this dead and eternal snow.” I learned understatement later, maybe in college.
Regardless, whether your first favourite good-not-great artist was Bright Eyes or Alanis Morissette or Boyz II Men, one of the purposes of music for teenagers is to help them imagine what adulthood might be like (accurately or, more often, not). That’s doubly true for artists like Oberst whose appeal relies on a perceived emotional rawness. One of the pleasures of growing up a Bright Eyes fan was living vicariously through Oberst, who is nine years older than I am, and his slow march to maturity.
But if all teenagers want to see their future, I’m starting to believe no twentysomething does — and my latest evidence for this is the 36-year-old Oberst’s new album Ruminations. It’s a good record — the songs are disciplined, engaging, thoughtful — but oh man is it a bummer. “The same thought hits her like a cinder block / Life’s an odd job that she don’t got the nerve to quit.” “I don’t want to feel stuck, baby / I just want to get drunk before noon.” “The mind and the brain aren’t quite the same / But they both want out of this place.” And those are just the first three tracks.
The jarring thing about these songs is less the content than the tone. Bright Eyes’ music was never exactly joyous, but it was earnest and cathartic in a way that Ruminations seems to deliberately avoid. Oberst’s melancholy here is far more clear-eyed than it was in his 20s, which tracks with the increasingly clear-eyed way most adults grow to see the world. The sadness on Ruminations sounds survivable, more like downbeat Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell than someone grappling with the emotional immediacy of very young adulthood.
Which, to be clear, is generally a good thing. If you’re a Bright Eyes fan who begrudges Oberst his (relative) emotional stability, you’re an asshole. The artists you idolized as a teenager can’t live theatrically forever. The ones who try to hang onto their youthful urgency often drink it away instead.
It’s possible to know all of this to be true and still be taken aback when, in the prime of your 20s, you hear it through the work of your once-favourite once-young artist instead of from your parents. The question posed by Ruminations — and I think it’s a question anyone can relate to whether you’ve memorized dozens of Bright Eyes songs or never heard one — is, what do you do when the musician who helped steer you through adolescence starts sending dispatches from the future you’d prefer to ignore?