The Ballad of Conor Oberst

Photo: Autumn de Wilde

Conor Oberst will turn 31 the day after Valentine’s Day. He has been writing songs for more than half his life; he started at 12, recording his first album, Water, on cassette, at 13. When he was 17, Oberst and his band Bright Eyes released A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995–1997. The album turned him into a sort of new Dylan prodigy, a folk-rock troubadour from a frigid state who spoke for a generation of intense, sensitive, liberal twentysomethings. “Thank God that’s over, right?” says Oberst with a grin. “I went right from wunderkind to washed up. Old. Been around too long. That’s just the way I feel. That’s my internal dialogue.”

Oberst is sitting in the East Village apartment of a friend, his narrow shoulders hunched against the chill. With his anime eyes and curtain of bangs, he looks like a particularly delicate child—not the grizzled vet of his imagination. But one can understand why Oberst might feel conflicted about his public persona, which has taken some bashing. No less than Jonathan Franzen name-checks him for quick symbolism in the novel Freedom, in which Oberst headlines a concert for an environmental cause, standing in for the faux naïveté, innocence, and extreme political correctness of one character.

It’s just another of the many things people have written about Oberst that he hasn’t read. He gave up paying attention to press about himself, when the criticism—that he was too maudlin, too achingly liberal, too much the guy who plays guitar and cries at parties to impress the girls—became painful. “Anyone who says they aren’t hurt by that stuff is not telling the truth,” says Oberst, who found some consolation in a friend’s coffee-table book—a compendium of essays and reviews that ran in the music magazine Melody Maker. “I was reading through it, and somebody was just slamming [early records by] Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell—all these people who are, in my mind, untouchable. They’re calling their music phony and terrible and derivative. It was so encouraging because it made me realize these people don’t know what they’re talking about at all.” Last night, Oberst happened to watch the documentary When You’re Strange, about the Doors. “Given how incredibly inaccurate everything I’ve read about myself usually is, I had to wonder, Is any of this real?”

Oberst is about to release The People’s Key, the first Bright Eyes album since 2007’s Cassadaga, a swirling operatic opus that was (mostly) critically admired for being as opulent and baroque as his early work was spare and delicate. Oberst followed that with two laid-back, uncharacteristically witty alt-country solo albums with the Mystic Valley Band, as well as an expansive rock record with supergroup Monsters of Folk (Jim James of My Morning Jacket, M. Ward, and Bright Eyes’ producer-instrumentalist Mike Mogis). The People’s Key was recorded back home, in Omaha, on the Saddle Creek label, which Oberst founded with his older brother Justin in 1993. “The most difficult and rewarding thing in this business is longevity,” he says. “So far, I’ve made it through, but I’ve been lucky. What’s happening in the music industry is exactly what’s happening in America in general—the shrinking of the middle. Soon there will only be MySpace bands and, like, Jay-Z.”

The new album is rich with slick, glitzy keyboards courtesy of Nate Walcott, the third member of Bright Eyes. “To me, this is not an eighties record, but that’s definitely the palette of sounds we’re drawing from,” says Oberst, who worked with the band to untangle and simplify their sound. “If there’s a criticism of Cassadaga that I agreed with, it’s that we left things in the oven too long, that songs were overstuffed, with too many ideas competing for space.”

Clarity has forever been a challenge. “The one recurring theme in my writing, and in my life in general, is confusion,” he says. “The fact that anytime you think you really know something, you’re going to find out you’re wrong—that is the rule. The moments where you think you have something figured out, those are the exceptions.”

Fans will recognize another familiar thread in The People’s Key, that of living in a world that can at times be horrifying. Back in 2003, Oberst battled Clear Channel and the corporatization of music; he later publicly supported PETA, performed at a 2008 rally for presidential candidate Barack Obama, and, last year, boycotted Arizona for its anti-immigration bill. His commitment to action remains, tempered perhaps with a certain world-weariness. “Once you realize that everyone is in the same boat, that everyone is just as insecure and childlike as everyone else, that all these jokers in D.C. ruining our world are just greedy kids grabbing for marbles—I think that realization means you’re an adult,” says Oberst, who can come across as both cynical and a little naïve in his cynicism. “I will say there are evil people in this world. And one of the themes of the new record is standing up and fighting against that. I’d like to think that I will be able to discover a reality apart from this one, you know? Because it seems a little too bleak. I guess that’s wishful thinking.”

Oberst was raised Catholic, and has a long-standing attraction to people of faith, whether they believe in a traditional religion or extraterrestrials. “Whenever I meet someone who really follows something, I’m interested,” he says. “But ultimately I think all beliefs are the same. They all want to think we’re more than just this, that we can see and touch. I don’t look down upon them. I’m actually in awe. But there is always something for me that is a turnoff or breaks the suspension of disbelief.” Still, he enjoys the chase. “It keeps me learning and engaged, which is important. I think there’s a danger, for me at least, in retreating and going inward and depression. I have to stay diligent against that tendency.”

Lest you think Oberst spends his time sitting in a lotus position contemplating important things, he is—despite having avoided the headlines of self-destruction that accompany rock stardom—someone who likes to have a good time. He says his favorite feelings—other than “creating something out of nothing, the moment when a new song exists”—are “totally bad for you.” And with all his talk of adulthood, he’s not entirely ready to cast off the mantle of cool young outsider for rooted grown-up. “That seems very romantic and nice but far off,” he says of things like marriage and starting a family. “Every time I get around kids, I’m like, Fuck no—even around friends’ kids who I love. I mean, I’m very childlike, so in the right context I could do some playing and stuff, but so much with a kid is feigning excitement about what they’re doing, and I have trouble faking interest in anything.”

The Ballad of Conor Oberst