My teenage bedroom is a source of both pride and shame. When I go back to that small, square room I am left face-to-face with the evidence of some embarrassing youthful obsessions. Many of you, home for Christmas, might be doing just that now.
Take for instance the wall on the right as you enter the room, the wall that separates this bedroom from my brother's next door. Covering almost the entire wall is a hand-painted portrait of Kurt Cobain, rendered in inverted black and white. That strange, amateur impression has gazed out into the room for just about 10 years now.
At one point, the roof was covered in posters of Black Sabbath and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, not because those bands meant so much to me, but because they all came together in the same cheap poster book. I had a Led Zeppelin poster with the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven; that's what I perhaps look back on least fondly.
On the wall opposite Cobain, there is a built-in wardrobe, with four doors. Across the four doors I have written, in black permanent marker, "I fell for the promise/of a life with a purpose/but I know that's impossible/now – Conor Oberst, 17". It's hard even to type this, such is the surging embarrassment.
I was 16 when I scrawled that on the doors, disturbing my parents deeply in the process. I understand those words very differently now, a decade later. Much like Black Sabbath’s music, they are probably more meaningful to me now. On the inside of one door I wrote another four lines, written by Oberst some 10 years after the others, when he was 27:
Cast on a school of meditation built to soften the times
And hold us at the center while the spiral unwinds
It’s knocking over fences crossing property lines
Four Winds, cry until it comes
Less embarrassing but still painfully sincere, these lines come from Four Winds, the lead single from Bright Eyes' Cassadaga album. It was the first Bright Eyes album I had heard in real time, the first one I had anticipated. A year or two before I had discovered Oberst and the rest of the band through I'm Wide Awake It's Morning. Using our dodgy, dial-up internet I searched even dodgier mp3-download sites to find more of their records. I found scraps; some albums, but mostly just single tracks, often in incredibly low-quality files. Through the hiss of Oberst's early four-track recordings and the fuzzed edges of 64kbps mp3s, I heard something which hit hard.
Lying somewhere between the DIY immediacy of the grunge I loved, the theatrical nihilism of the emo I was then into, and the folk music I could actually emulate alone in my room, Bright Eyes ticked all my aesthetic boxes. Oberst himself embodied the youthful self-centredness I already possessed in bucketloads with the world-weary adulthood I so desired for myself. Messy relationships, anti-establishment politics, ambiguous spirituality, all rolled into a package just rough enough to let you imagine you could make something similar.
Perhaps most importantly, no one else I knew was into Bright Eyes. In the tame and lonely teenage wilderness of rural Ireland, they were mine, and mine alone. I turned turf with Letting Off The Happiness in my earbuds. I sang "Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh" to myself after the unimaginable tragedy of another month-long relationship going south. When I saw Bright Eyes live for the first time, underage and half-cut at Oxegen in 2007, I cried my eyes out for no apparent reason. They were in full big-band mode, their white suits an echo of preacher-era Dylan's travelling circus-church. A hole opened up in the tent's roof, the rain spilled through the lights in front of Oberst. I was simply overwhelmed.
I haven't seen Bright Eyes since, but I've seen Oberst a few times. A couple of festivals, the National Concert Hall, various places with various musicians backing him. I'm not sure when the fanaticism ebbed away, but now I hear his words differently. I hear them more as a memory; my nerves know the melodies, they're buried deeply somewhere within me, but the words don't come through as readily.
Artists I cared about
In recent years, I've seen a lot of artists play live, artists I cared about when I was younger, artists who had quit before hitting the money-making comeback trail. Bands like the Pixies or Bloody Valentine, or the Sex Pistols glimpsed from a distance at some festival or other. Some have been fun, like At The Drive-In earlier this year in Vicar Street, a room full of aging headbangers all indulging themselves in some post-hardcore showmanship. Some, like The Cure and Refused at Primavera in 2012, have been disastrous. I heard Boys Don't Cry in the distance as I dealt, not a little tearfully, with the discovery that my phone and wallet had been nicked. Refused, a Swedish punk band, had a semi-mythical status for me as a teenager, but seeing them then, U2-like on a huge, Ray-Ban-sponsored stage, was enough to turn the stomach. Everything about it was wrong. I'm not sure now why anything more was expected; I'm no longer so naive.
These experiences sit in the back of my mind when I get word that Oberst has released another new album, or is soon to be in town for a show. Oberst has never left the stage completely, choosing to push (and sometimes stagger) forward in his own idiosyncractic way. Bright Eyes may or may not be a thing any more, but it was always just one vehicle for a voice that can’t help but produce songs.
His seventh solo album, Ruminations, appeared in October. It's a quiet record that isn't trying to impress anyone. It comes after an anonymous allegation of serious sexual assault made against him was exposed as false, and was written while recovering after being hospitalised for "laryngitis, anxiety and exhaustion". Oberst is alone with a piano, acoustic guitar and harmonica. He sounds lonely as a scarecrow in a snow-covered field.
I doubt I’ll ever write any lyrics on my wall again. At the same time, I’ll never try to remove those words from my wardrobe either. It would be too easy to look at them and say, that’s not me any more. The 10 years I thought were ahead of me then have passed in a way I couldn’t have foreseen; I have not been alone as much as I anticipated, I have not travelled as widely as I’d hoped, I’ve been happier than I could have imagined. I know for sure now that I’m no singer, but I know too that it’s enough to have people like Oberst who can do my singing for me, somewhere out there. All together now: “If you love something, give it away . . .”