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Motion Sea Sickness Changes One Bright Eyes

We can all do with some hero worship, right? And while Armstrong may be my number one he never was the only one. In the early 70s it was Bowie, in the late 70s Costello, and right now my admiration for Conor Oberst, as anybody who reads this blog must be aware, is essentially unbounded.

And I keep on feeling as if I have to explain myself, explain to you why I have great taste in music and i think he is a songwriting genius, a man of boundless musical curiosity and hopeless innocence and a lyricist who, when on his game, is as good as it gets.

This 2005 Bright Eyes live sampler is a good example as to how damn good he is, considered a somewhat minor add to sked at the time it captures Conor straddling the line between power pop rockist and country child of rock: sorta mix of Gram Parsons and Chris Difford: nothing arranged when it can be over arranged and yet somewhere in the background a future he would reach just three years later beckoning to us. Does it work? Fucking A it works. “True Blue,” a minor B Side, is saved by the horns (the ones on the cover I guess!!) and a slow buildup through the slide guitars (and a dozen other instruments) to a broke vocal and a lovely sax break. It shouldn’t work, the song shouldn’t be able to sustain the business, but it does, it thrives.

Elsewhere he reverses the trend, the (literally) nihilistic opener of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning “t The Bottom Of Everything” loses the extended spoken word intro of the album but gains a sustained dive downwards to absolute nothingness as the plane crashes (with Evan Rachel Wood going down with it in the video -say it aint so!!). It is a Bright Eyes masterpiece that becomes clearer and manages a rare treat: a song litany that doesn’t drift off half way through into cleverness the way Costello did on songs like “Sunday’s Best”.

It isn’t even nearly the only important song on Motion Sickness. I could do without the Feist and Elliot Smith covers and I never even came close to liking “When the God Speaks To God,” and not because I disagree with his politics, though I do, but because it is awful, and everything else here is awe inspiring. “Make War” is the best song ever written about the aftermath of a romance: it doesn’t quite ache, it is past the ache part, it thinks the girl into a corner and questions her about the nature of love, any love, of freedom, of how the present kills even the memory of the past. Conor introduces it in two versions, the short version’s entire lyric goes: “Our love is dead.” the longer one ruminates on nothingness to even better effect than “Bottom”. It’s a problem and it is one without an answer: how love kills and usurps not just prior love but even the memory of past loves, “you can save face but you can never save your soul” Conor warns and it is a complicated emotion and a complicated song that slashes and dashes simplistic nonsense like “When the president”. It is also country or at least faux country, it has the twang and it has the slide guitar but Bright Eyes weren’t the Mystic Valley Band and “Make War” sure wasn’t “Sausilito“. Still, ahem, the future hangs over his head…

“Make War” is the best song on the album only because it improves on the Lifted original. “Train Under Water” doesn’t improve on the I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning original and yet still he has a country take to stories since Conor has been the most confused of ladies men especially here: in this NYC song he is as baffled by his shallowness as we are: Conor is in the Village drinking the night away while a girl he has plans to meet waits for him in her Brooklyn home and he is in real trouble and he feels completely shitty, guilty and he tries to explains but it is as baffling to him as it is to her: drunk and drugged, wandrin under the stars, he slips on his tongue, “don’t be fooled, don’t get lied to, love was always cruel” he warns her, and he keeps on asking her back and simultaneously turning her down. Here Conor reaches the country music he couldn’t pull off on “Make Love”. The original was power pop lurking behind lo fi indie rock, this version is country lurking behind indie rock.

By the end, and even more than on Wide Awake,he reaches an emotional nakedness which is the only excuse for such a bizarre exercise in implied misogyny. “Make me cry, make me cry…” Conor screams and the future beckons to him.

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