With all the cosmic imagery on his recent albums, Conor Oberst could not have asked for a better setting than the riverfront park where his band Bright Eyes played two weeks ago in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest Music Conference. Those deep-in-the-heart Texas stars served as a backdrop, along with a concert-ending fireworks display, plus a glowing moon that was closer to Earth that night than it had been in 18 years. Oberst even dedicated one of his new songs, "Approximate Sunlight," to the so-called supermoon.
"That was a first," the singer gushed a few days later. "Not just the moon. That's the first time I've had fireworks accompaniment at one of our shows."
The thousands of Bright Eyes fans in attendance might have viewed the concert the same way they did the moon: abnormally large (over two hours), remarkably clear (the current six-piece band lineup is tight and concise) and a rare occurrence.
A prolific songwriter who recorded his first cassette in his Omaha bedroom at age 13 -- and put out nine albums between 1998 and 2007 -- Oberst uncharacteristically went four years between the last Bright Eyes albums and the latest, "The People's Key." There have been murmurings this might be his band's last effort, too, but even Oberst doesn't seem to believe that anymore.
Not that indie-rock's youngest veteran star, now 31, is ready for way-early retirement. Since Bright Eyes went on hiatus following 2007's "Cassadaga," Oberst has put out two albums and toured as Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band. He also made one album and hit the road with the supergroup Monsters of Folk, with pals Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M. Ward and Bright Eyes producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis.
The Monsters' run -- killer live show, so-so record -- was just sort of a fun fluke that Oberst hopes will strike again. "I learned so much from those guys, and just loved watching them perform every night," he said. The Mystic Valley Band, however, grew more directly out of what he said was "a deliberate move to put Bright Eyes on the sidelines."
"After 'Cassadaga,' we felt like we hit a wall in a sense of it feeling good and fresh," he admitted. "To me, it was important to try to make a record without Mike, just because he has been such a safety net with me over the years, having more or less worked exclusively with him in the studio."
He said he appreciates Bright Eyes more than ever, though, now that he's a few weeks into Bright Eyes' tour, which includes two Minneapolis dates Monday and Tuesday at First Avenue (yep, the dude likes the place). The lineup includes Mogis, longtime keyboardist Nate Walcott and Omaha pals Clark Baechle (of the Faint) and Andy LeMaster (Now It's Overhead).
"I realized there's a comfort level we have playing together; it's different from any other collaboration that I've ever been involved with. It goes back so long now, I don't know if I'll ever have anything else like this."
Into the Mystic
Oberst broke the Bright Eyes mold in two essential ways with the Mystic Valley Band, which he debuted at a pair of Minneapolis gigs in late 2007 at the 400 Bar (co-owned by former tour manager and pal Bill Sullivan). For starters, he pursued more of an off-the-cuff, live-band sound.
"The Mystic Valley Band was really immediate: I'd write the songs, and then I'd start playing it in a room with the guys, and within a few times of playing the song, it's more or less formed," he said.
"With Bright Eyes, everything starts with a demo, and then sort of brick-by-brick it becomes the song in the studio through a lot of arranging and production. There's no telling what instruments will wind up on the song or what the approach will be."
The other big change-up in the Mystic Valley Band was location. Clearly not in Omaha anymore, he recorded his first MVB album in Tepoztlan, Mexico, a mountain town rich in Aztec lore. "It seemed so ancient," Oberst remembered, "the way the indigenous population was integrated and salvaged. The ruins and the pyramids and that culture had a big impact on me."
The second Mystic Valley album was made on a ranch outside El Paso amid the stark West Texas desert scenery that Oberst described as "feeling like you're on the moon." These two rural and otherworldly locations left an impression on Oberst that carried over to the new Bright Eyes album.
"The People's Key" is loaded with sci-fi themes, transcendental lyrics and even some vague references to Mexican immigration, with a loose concept overall about making connections even as the universe is drifting apart. Among its most curious features is a series of spoken-word interludes/rants delivered by a guy Oberst met while recording near El Paso, Denny Brewer. Brewer's ramblings include such lines as, "If there is no such thing as time, you're already there," and "When there's total enlightenment, there will be peace."
"The first time I met Denny, I thought, 'This guy is a rare, special person,'" Oberst remembered. "We had a lot of late nights listening to him pontificate on all these sort of wild subjects. Right about the time you get to the point where you say, "This guy is a maniac," he'll turn a corner and say something that is so profound and rings so true."
Oberst said all of these elements -- the Mexican ruins, the Texas landscape, the out-there philosophizing -- influenced "The People's Keys."
"Everything in my songwriting is a reaction to what came before it," he said. "I wanted this album to be less about narrative, and the imagery comes first. The songs all make sense to me in a linear way, but I doubt that translates to most listeners. Hopefully, the listeners will interpret it their own way."
Portrait of a young Oberst
When it came time to record as Bright Eyes again last year, Oberst returned to Omaha. Nebraska's little big-city was also where I had a memorable meeting with Oberst when he was on the cusp of stardom in 2002.
Seated on the couch at the label he helped start, Saddle Creek Records -- which had just moved out of co-founder Robb Nansel's apartment into an office in a former stereo store -- he talked about Bright Eyes' fourth album, the grandiosely titled "Lifted; or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground." It had just earned four stars in Rolling Stone and innumerable "New Dylan" accolades for the truly bright-eyed songwriter, then a mere 22.
"I don't care how old I am, I'm always going to treat my music seriously like this," Oberst said at the time, deflecting backlash that his music was too dramatic and confessional -- too emo, if you will. "There's a sort of indie-rock shyness. You're not supposed to be too emotional or open, but I don't buy that."
In a way, Oberst is still facing criticism for going too deep, except now it's for his music's spiritual and transcendental exploration instead of all the growing-pains, inner-psyche stuff. Pitchfork's 5.0 rating of "The People's Key" rants against all its "shamanic allusions, futurist tail-chasing, Bono-like levels of evangelizing." Even some of Oberst's most loving fans say they long for the personal-toned, confessional songwriter of old.
Now a New York resident when he's off the road, Oberst hasn't lost his polite Omaha approach to dealing with such reactions.
"These songs are still very personal," he said, "and I'm still heavily drawing from experiences in my life and friends' lives. This album comes from the same sources as all my albums."
On the other hand, he added, "The way I approach things, I know I'm not going to write in this style forever. I'm sure there will be a point where it gets to more of a confessional style. But who knows? I think the biggest disservice I could do to anyone interested in my music is to phone it in or repeat something just because it worked in the past."
- With: Titus Andronicus.
- When: 8 p.m. Mon. & Tue.
- Where: First Avenue, 701 1st Av. N., Mpls.
- Tickets: $30, 18 & older. www.First-Avenue.com.