Of all the many times I’ve seen Bright Eyes frontman and songwriting engine Conor Oberst perform in person, his appearance at The Hall in Little Rock last Monday was by far the most curious. The strangeness took a while to show up, though.
Following a perfectly adequate set by Austin indie rockers Good Looks, the first several offerings from Bright Eyes were strong, a mostly uninterrupted smattering from three different releases. After walking on stage to some pre-recorded noise, they opened with a dynamic rendition of “An Attempt to Tip the Scales,” alternating between heavy drum hits and acoustic-only passages. Then, the typically electronic “Gold Mine Gutted” and “Down In A Rabbit Hole” were given a folky treatment, with piano and trumpet lines from Nate Walcott tastefully replacing the glitchy synth leads from the album versions. When multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis began “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” — a cut off the most popular Bright Eyes record, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” — with the sloppy mandolin solo it’s known for, the crowd was the loudest it’d been all night. “Double Joe,” a cover by Simon Joyner (who, like Oberst, is also native to Omaha, Nebraska) rounded out the first act of the night.
Throughout this opening suite of tunes, Oberst’s voice was confident and loudly mic’d, his characteristically strained delivery put fully and fearlessly on display. At times, he sounded drunk, but that isn’t particularly off brand considering that the line between intoxication-tinged and appropriately desperate is a thin one in the case of Oberst. The real peculiarity came when he started talking. It’s not uncommon to encounter differences between a musician’s songs and their real-life personality; in fact, I’d argue that one of the primary reasons we go to shows in the first place is to get a better understanding of the fascinating and often ambivalent relationship between art and artist. At Monday’s performance, however, Oberst’s on-stage persona was so gapingly discordant with how he presents in album form that the audience was a little unsettled.
Oberst’s music is often unabashedly political, and there are plenty of messed up things going on in the world of Arkansas government that are worth riffing on, but Oberst chose instead to devote much of his stage banter to confusing, faux-conspiratorial rants. He brought up “Clinton sex rings” multiple times. At one point, he attempted to lead the crowd in a “Lock her up!” chant, only to call us “fucking idiots” for shouting along. A couple songs later, he posed a question so bafflingly bizarre that it’s likely never been uttered before by another human: “Tucker Carlson, haven’t I — as a fucking American — earned the right to drink baby’s fucking blood?” Vague and devoid of context, every tirade felt like provocation for its own sake.
After a while, his repartee began to take on a surreal quality because it was continuously sandwiched between extremely earnest performances of extremely earnest songs. By the time the band had played “Poison Oak” (which traffics in devastating lines like “My clothes are soaking wet from your brother’s tears,”) “Train Under Water” (which opens with the sweet observation that whoever it’s being sung to was “born inside of a raindrop”) and “First Day of My Life” (which is so iconically genuine that it doesn’t need explaining), I’d started kicking around the theory that perhaps Oberst is the kind of person who can only be real through his art. Perhaps songwriting is the outlet he turns to when he wants to say something of substance and everything else is just a game, an opportunity to make himself look cool by way of ironic distance.
The more I sat with this theory, though, the more I questioned it. If Oberst’s intention was to impress us with his ability to cleverly poke fun at the sorry state of the modern world, he failed. Yes, some concertgoers half-heartedly whooped along to his diatribes, but it was obvious that most of his quips weren’t landing. Even innocuous wisecracks like the one about how he meant to wear his “I’m allergic to Mondays” shirt barely elicited any laughs. In other words, when he wasn’t successfully convincing us that he’s one of the best songwriters of the past few decades, he was brazenly embodying the spirit of an immature kid who’s been given unfiltered access to a microphone for the first time, which — however cringey — is also a type of sincerity. I’m not convinced that he honestly believes in much (or any) of what he was spewing, but I did get the sense that the perverse cynicism undergirding these jokes might be a window into more intimately parsing his less than straightforward worldview. Maybe his relentless commitment to decidedly unfunny bits, regardless of whether they went over well, is actually a sign that what we received on Monday was an exceptionally authentic version of Oberst, warts and all. Oddly enough, I’d call that a great show.