There’s a moment during Padraic My Prince where Conor Oberst wails ‘so tonight to compensate I will poison myself/ another coughing shaking fit in a bathroom that is spinning.’ I listened to that for the first time at midnight in my darkened bedroom, not more than five years ago. It was my first exposure to Bright Eyes, and although many will argue that the albums after Letting of the Happiness are more accomplished, there is a certain roughness, a naïve rawness, that is laid out for the listener in their 1998 outing.
It’s an eighteen year old singing about an eighteen year old’s problems. Not a clean cut poster boy to whom young men can aspire or girls can admire, but the emotional wreck, the sullen, distraught and destroyed kid who’s spent suburban nights necking drinks in a basement somewhere in Colorado and getting kicks from wherever he can.
The City Has Sex is mature beyond its writer’s years. Oberst is urgent, frantic in his musicianship, lyricism and vocals. The record is boiling with the energy of a boy becoming man, when everything is new, there’s plenty to be passionate about and he wants to share it. Melodramatic emotional spillage is a mere side effect as he screams, shouts and contorts his barely matured vocal chords. It’s usually a mess of noise and fast guitar strumming.
Then there are the beautiful moments in the rough and tumble, the breaths in between songs where the track has been cut a little late; the tinny sounding snare; the slipping of fingers between frets. The unadulterated lust of Pull My Hair is intoxicating; multiple voices calling over one another, a distance bass drum keeping time and a cacophony of instruments raising hell.
I connected to the teenage malaise that permeated each song, Oberst’s feeling of disillusionment when life had barely taken off so perfectly encapsulated in Touch’s opening lines:
‘Touch, lying on the floor
wishing this could last
knowing that it can’t
and soon you will leave
and I’ll be on the floor
watching the TV, trying hard to find a reason to move.’
Letting Off The Happiness is gloriously shambolic, sonically courageous and lyrically stunning. The fact that it was created by a teenager is a mere footnote.