I was going to call this countdown 'Top 10 Conor Oberst' songs, but none of Oberst's recent non-Bright-Eyes tunes —in his lazy, bro-ish goof-off Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, and in the alt-rock-celebrity supergroup Monsters of Folk— are worthy of a spot amongst the songsmith's best work. Most of Oberst's most memorable musical moments came when he was still young and angst-riddled; his longplaying magnum opus, Lifted, was, after all, authored when Oberst was all of 21. His tunes tend to be studies in self-loathing, political rage, or both; either way, they're always richly, viciously poetic.
1. "A Poetic Retelling of an Unfortunate Seduction"
The title of Letting Off the Happiness's penultimate, climactic jam would be hilarious if it weren't for its delivery, which is so raucous with pantomimed pain that this "Unfortunate Seduction" seems hardly to be a laughing matter. Bolstered by the nimble-limbed drumming of Jeremy Barnes (of Neutral Milk Hotel/A Hawk and a Hacksaw), chorus vocals by Kevin Barnes (of Of Montreal, and no relation), and ghostly, ghastly swipes of dangling pedal-steel by Mike Mogis, the song builds to a fever pitch, where Oberst's unrestrained, face-reddening yells swallow the stereo. Even after a career of such tricks, it still sounds shocking —unsettling, even— to hear the 18-year-old singer literally scream whilst Barnes smashes the percussion to a pulp.
2. "A Perfect Sonnet"
It's an unlikely entreaty to a rousing sing-along: "I believe that lovers should be tied together!/And thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather!/And left there to drown/Left there to DROWN!/In their innocence!" If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, what about a teenaged songwriting wunderkind scorned? What dame did young Conor so wrong that he decided to wish torture and death upon anyone who dared to be happy? What emotional crime caused the songwriter to outlaw happiness? Once again, you'd suspect that Oberst is joking, but hear his voice quiver and quaver over those bloody-knuckled acoustic-guitar strums and random electronic bleeps and bashed-out percussion, and the delivery could convince you of anything.
3. "Sunrise, Sunset"
Fevers and Mirrors found Oberst working with a sense of literary ambition, recurring symbols, and persistent motifs: the LP's title openly alluding to the two images its songwriter returned to again and again. There are fevers and mirrors amidst "Sunrise, Sunset," a waltz-time carnival-sideshow theme which lifts from Fiddler on the Roof(!) and lurches with the kind of quiet-to-loud hysteria that suggests an adolescent Oberst spent quality time with Nirvana. But beyond its place in the album's narrative (this tune's very Arienette-centric), it introduced imagery Oberst would return to on subsequent LPs: the artist as puppet, and sunrise/sunset as grand symbols for life and death.
4. "We Are Free Men"
5. "Waste of Paint"
2002's monstrous Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is home to many of Oberst's best songs. Like "False Advertising," an orchestral ode whose ironic waltz-time romance delivers artistic self-flagellation, or "Let's Not S**t Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)," ten rambunctious minutes of American hyper-capitalist blues. But "Waste of Paint" is the best of the best: a collection of anecdotes steeped in self-criticism and, eventually, liberation. It's here, in its six-and-a-half minutes, that Oberst's 'next Dylan' reputation took hold. But it's pure Oberst: equal parts self-loathing and self-aggrandizing, and desperately needy. "All I want," he wails, on closing, is "to be loved and believe in my sooouuullll!"
6. "One Foot in Front of the Other"
Though more famously re-done as "Land Locked Blues" on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (replete with Emmylou Harris guest vocal), hardcore Bright Eyes fans know that this initial version, hidden away on the Saddle Creek 50 compile, is superior. The narrative device —paralleling personal conflicts with armed conflicts— isn't inspired in and of itself, but the lyrics are brutal and beautiful: "you'll be free, child, once you have died/From the shackles of language, and measurable time." The tune marks another Oberst composition grappling with Bush-era America and its "televised war"; the songsmith spitting "all freedom's a joke, we're just taking a piss" as piped-in marching-band/victory-anthem penny-whistles make it ache with irony.
7. "Spring Cleaning"
"God bless you!" That's how Conor Oberst consecrates the performance of "Spring Cleaning," the song he's penned and then handed over to Jake Bellows, leader of local Omaha outfit Neva Dinova. You hear Oberst's voice before, in chorus harmonies, but when he warmly embraces his collaborateur at close, that's where you hear the obvious pride, the love. "Spring Cleaning," by some measures, may not even be a Bright Eyes song, but it's one of Oberst's best; and Bellows' rich, clear croon brings it beautifully to life. "Amy's got a baby in her stomach," sounds its memorable opening line, and the remainder reveals itself to be a refute of the invitations of death and addiction, a sweetly ode to living life, no matter how difficult it may be.
8. "At the Bottom of Everything"
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning opens with "At the Bottom of Everything"'s spoken prologue —staged in the halting tones of stage banter— that tells the tale of airplane passengers plunging towards a fatal crash. In such near-death hysteria, Oberst allows a whole life to flash through the lyrics: youthful idealism ("into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn't dream/we must sing") giving way to the safety of conformity ("we must memorize nine numbers and deny we have a soul"). But death —or near-death— brings rebirth, and new life; and when Oberst, in harmony with My Morning Jacket's Jim James, carols "oh my morning's coming back/the whole world's waking up!" like a bird greeting dawn, he sounds overjoyed to be back from the brink.
9. "Hit the Switch"
10. "When the President Talks to God"
Written in a pique of rage after the 2004 US Election, "When the President Talks to God" is a lacerating political satire, mocking George W. Bush's claims of communing with God by, comically, painting the pair as drinking buddies. In a Dylan-esque croak, over a lonesome strum, Oberst sings things like: "When the President talks to God/do they drink near beer and go play golf/while they pick which countries to invade/which Muslim souls still can be saved?/I guess God just calls a spade a spade." Such sledgehammer hilarity lead to this non-album-track becoming a live-show staple, and finding a life outside Bright Eyes. There's few recent examples of a song being embraced as a grass-roots protest song; but this Oberst ode sure did.