Thursday, May 14, 2009

9. Letting Off the Happiness - Bright Eyes, 1998 (Best of the 90s)

Letting Off the Happiness

Bright Eyes
Saddle Creek Records.

Earlier in this Top Twenty Albums of the 1990s list, I congratulated Weezer on giving emo to the world. As a commercial failure and cult hit, Pinkerton eventually did just that, finding this generation’s emo bands while they were still ten years old. On a deeper, grassroots level, however, emo was alive and well, grazing the heartland of the Midwest. The brain-child of seventeen year old Nebraska-native Conor Oberst, Bright Eyes gave birth to its finest record yet, melding a country mentality with DIY punk flare and lyrics so deeply personal, they resonated beyond the kid’s shaky timbre.

As developed as Bright Eyes became during the mid 00s, mastering folk and diving honorably into electronic-rock, Letting Off the Happiness is Oberst at his most raw and unaware. There’s the lo-fi, seasonal suicide bid of ‘If Winter Ends’ that breaks the listener in, the dewy petal-steel of ‘The Difference in the Shades’, the erotic violence of ‘Pull My Hair’ and the calm resignation of ‘Tereza and Tomas’; each offering a slice of what you’d imagine Dylan might’ve sounded like had he admitted he was human. This is hardly the pristinely produced record we’ve become accustomed to and while Letting Off the Happiness is the last entirely concept-free record of his Bright Eyes discography, its effortless, id-driven passion easily overpowers the muddled narrative of Fevers and Mirrors or the maturity of his later, refined work. His best work was yet to come, yet there are several moments here that provide ample reasons to reconsider. Between this and Pinkerton, emo’s glory days were over before anyone gave it such an uninspired label.

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