Published Jul 21, 2015Conor Oberst is many things to many people. Emo wunderkind, folk troubadour, rock'n'roll saviour — he's been called it all. Yet for someone who's released an album a year with more than half-a-dozen projects since he was 14, the 35-year old musician has maintained more continuity in his career than most people would expect. "The songs, essentially, are just pretty simple folk songs," he told Paste magazine in 2005. "What I find interesting is the idea that we can take those songs and just dress them up in a million different ways." Whether it's the heart-on-sleeve confessionals of early Bright Eyes, the pointedly political Desaparecidos — who just released their sophomore album, Payola, 13 years after their debut — or the folky-Americana of much of his more recent output, one thing remains undeniable. As he told the NME in 2000: "The people that like it really fucking like it."
1980 to 1992
Conor Oberst is born February 15, 1980 in Omaha, NE. His father Matthew is an information manager at Mutual of Omaha, while his mother Nancy is a teacher. Oberst's father moonlights as a multi-instrumentalist in a local band playing weddings as a supplemental income. Matthew Sr.'s business background becomes a major asset for Conor later in his career when he makes his father his business manager.
His two older brothers, Justin and Matthew Jr., introduce him to '80s indie and alternative bands like the Cure, R.E.M., the Smiths and Fugazi. At age 10 he learns to play guitar, receiving lessons from Matthew Jr. and starts hanging around the local indie record shop, Antiquarium Records.
"I can remember specifically saying the Cure were my favourite band back in second grade," he tells the AV Club in 2003. Six hours from Minneapolis and eight from Chicago, and known mostly as the hometown of business magnate Warren Buffett, Omaha proves to be a culturally isolating place for the budding musician. "There were always kids putting on shows, but it was pretty contained within the city. Not many bands broke out and started touring," he says. "There were some moments when I was growing up where I was like, 'I want to get the fuck out of here,' you know? But I was consumed with my little group of friends and making music."
Oberst attends St. Pius X/St. Leo School, and by the end of seventh grade, he is writing his own songs. He makes his live debut playing the final song of a folk night at Kilgores performance space. The event is organized by Ted Stevens of Lullaby for the Working Class. Bill Hoover, a member of local group the Darktown House Band, is in the audience and asks Oberst to come back a few weeks later. "I had to write enough songs to play a whole set," Oberst tells the blog Lazy-I in 1998. "That was how I got started."
He commits his compositions to tape in his parents' basement. Six months later, Water, Oberst's debut cassette, appears as the first release on Lumberjack Records, a label founded by his brother Justin and his friend Mike Mogis as part of an entrepreneurship class project. The label quickly becomes the anchor for a collective of local friends and musicians, including Tim Kasher, Robb Nansel and Ted Stevens. Meanwhile, Matthew Jr. forms the March Hares, whose ranks include Kasher. After Matthew leaves, the band morphs into Slowdown Virginia. "There were a bunch of other bands in Omaha that were playing," Nansel tells Paste in 2005. "Everybody needed an outlet. The label was started to just put out our friends' stuff."
Oberst's second cassette, Here's to Special Treatment, arrives on Omaha label Sing, Eunuchs!, home of local hero Simon Joyner. Reflecting on his deep dive into the music biz a decade after the fact, Oberst tells the AV Club, "I basically just jumped right in and started doing it all the time. And yet the whole process is documented, for the past ten years. It's pretty embarrassing."
He enters high school at the Jesuit-run Creighton Preparatory School, and forms Commander Venus with Tim Kasher (whose other band, Slowdown Virginia, will soon become Cursive) and Matt Bowen (who later joins the Faint). Nansel soon joins on guitar.
Lumberjack releases the debut from Commander Venus, Do You Feel at Home? and non-album track "Pay Per View" appears on the Ghostmeat Records compilation, Apollo's Salvage. With Oberst still in high school though, their window for touring is limited to summer breaks. Mogis and his brother A.J. start recording bands in his parent's basement in North Platte, NE. He dubs the space Whoopass Recording Studio.
Producing eventually takes precedence over Lumberjack for Mogis, who will later hand over management reins to Nansel. Oberst and Clark Baechle form post-hardcore band Norman Bailer with Baechle's brother Todd Fink and Joel Petersen. They release the cassette Sine Sierra on Lumberjack. Oberst leaves soon after, but the rest of the members continue on. Three years later they change their name and release their debut as the Faint. Despite Lumberjack's growing catalogue, the label remains staunchly loyal to the social group built around their local scene, signing bands based on personal relationships rather than business prospects.
Oberst's third solo cassette, The Soundtrack to My Movie is released by Sing, Eunuchs! as is Kill the Monster Before it Eats Baby, a split seven-inch with Hoover. Commander Venus releases a split seven-inch with Drip called Some Songs. While still in Commander Venus, Oberst forms indie pop band Park Ave. with future members of Tilly and the Wall (Jamie Williams, Neely Jenkins whom Oberst also dates) and the Faint (Clark Baechle). The band play about a dozen shows and make a few recordings. Oberst also records three songs with the Magentas, whose membership includes Fink and Chris Hughes, later of Beep Beep. The song "Annex Annex" appears on a Ghostmeat Records comp while "Science Fiction in Schools" and "Clatter" remain officially unreleased.
Grass Records is set to release Commander Venus's second album, The Uneventful Vacation, but the label is bought by Alan and Diana Meltzer, who previously owned distributor CD One Stop. They dub their new label Wind-up, which will later find success with Christian-leaning hard rock acts like Creed and Evanescence. "It became a joke of how much money we could pilfer from this record label," Oberst tells Lazy-I. "They bought us a van and sent us on these tours. They had all this money and didn't know how to run a record label."
Recording reportedly costs $15,000, a massive sum for an indie record at the time. Although Oberst dubs the album "somewhat of a failure musically," it gives Commander Venus national buzz. However their success is curtailed after Bowen and Kasher quit (the former no longer wanted to play drums, the latter to concentrate on Cursive). Todd Baechle and Ben Armstrong fill in as rhythm section and the band embark on an East Coast tour, but split up soon after.
"I got fed up with the big emo music craze. We got tagged as an emo band right off the bat," says Oberst to Lazy-I. During this period, Commander Venus also release a four-way split seven-inch with Lux-O-Values, Norman Bailer and Weld. Meanwhile, Oberst releases a split seven-inch with Squad Car 96 on H. Records. It marks the first release for his latest project, Bright Eyes. "I was staying up late one night watching Turner Movie Classics," he tells the Stanford Daily in 2001. "I can't remember the name of the movie, but the main Humphrey Bogart-type dude kept calling the girl 'bright eyes' — a term of endearment." "[Conor] was recording a bunch of stuff at home on four-track," Nansel recalls to Paste. "He would just make us tapes. This was all going on as Commander Venus was dissolving; we all just kind of grew attached to those tapes."
Justin Oberst, who plans to attend law school, cedes control of Lumberjack to Mogis and Nansel, who change the name to Saddle Creek Records. It nevertheless retains the catalogue numbering from Lumberjack. In January, Oberst releases A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997. It becomes Saddle Creek's first release. The record is a compilation of solo tracks he'd recorded that didn't suit Commander Venus. Jenkins contributes vocals to the song "Feb. 15th" while Ted Stevens, Todd Fink and Matt Bowen all help out with drums. Oberst's father is responsible for the "lead strumming" on "The Feel Good Revolution." On the track "I Watched You Taking Off," Oberst presciently sums up the early Saddle Creek modus operandi: "the sound of the hopeless kids as they scream from the basements of the houses of their parents."
In August, Bright Eyes embark on a U.S. tour, during which Oberst breaks his hand. He also has to borrow money from his father to bail him out of "some shitty stuff." He sells his van to repay him. "The hardest part is touring," he tells Lazy-I. "I'd love to make a living playing music, but the easiest way to do that is to compromise what you're doing. You cease caring about what you're doing. All I want is to make enough money to live — which is having an apartment and a shitty car." In the fall, he attends the University of Nebraska. Already a prolific writer of poetry and short stories, he studies English.
Oberst follows his Bright Eyes debut in November with Letting off the Happiness, a more fully formed offering with full band arrangements on many tracks. The record marks the first collaboration between Oberst and producer Mogis, who also plays on many of the album's tracks. Most of the album is recorded in Oberst's parents' basement on an analog, eight-track reel-to-reel. Kicking off a trend that will continue for much of his career, many of Oberst's Saddle Creek labelmates also make contributions. During recording, Oberst travels to Athens, GA, home-turf of the Elephant 6 Collective, to record contributions from Neutral Milk Hotel drummer and future A Hawk and a Hacksaw mastermind Jeremy Barnes and of Montreal's Kevin Barnes (no relation). The sessions are captured by Andy LeMaster at his local studio. "I'm definitely influenced by [Neutral Milk Hotel]" he tells Magnet magazine in one of Bright Eyes first national features. "Any comparison to them is fine with me." Park Avenue release a split-single with the Wrens while Commander Venus contributes "Bent on Broken Nerves" and "Waiting for Enoch Arden" to a Saddle Creek Records sampler. The booklet indicates these tracks will arrive on a forthcoming record that never materializes.
Bright Eyes release the seven-inch Too Much of a Good Thing is a Good Thing with Books (not to be confused with the Books), whose roster includes Chris Baechle, on Vanishing Act Records, while Urine Records releases Park Ave.'s lone album When Jamie Went to London… We Broke Up. It will be reissued by Team Love in 2005. In November, Saddle Creek releases Bright Eyes' Every Day and Every Night EP, which includes the track "A Perfect Sonnet" whose melody bears more than a passing resemblance to Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train."
Every Day and Every Night catches the ear of Nate Krenkel, a talent scout for Sony Music's publishing division. A publishing deal allows Oberst to buy a home in Omaha and keep focused on his music. "It was a good way for him to give his songs some exposure and make some money without losing his independence," Krenkel told Greg Kot for the book Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.
Fevers and Mirrors arrives on Saddle Creek at the end of May. The album further expands Oberst's sonic palette, adding flute, piano and accordion to the mix. The album opens with a boy reading from the Marjorie W. Sharmat book Mitchell is Moving, while the track "An Attempt to Tip the Scales" features a fake interview between Fink (pretending to be Oberst), and Lullaby for the Working Class's Matt Silcock. It is an attempt to lighten to mood of an otherwise very dark record. Pitchfork later includes the album on its list of the "Top 200 Albums of the 2000s." F&M refines Oberst's sincere confessional approach to songwriting, which ensures that the "emo" tag continues to dog his career.
Looking back 15 years later, Oberst describes the early Bright Eyes sounds as a reaction to the slacker aesthetic that was so pervasive throughout the '90s. "I always assumed I might have to do something else because it might not work out financially," he'll tell Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast in 2015. "If you're going to do it, there's nothing wrong with taking it seriously and trying your best." To support the record, Oberst quits school and his job to head out on tour. "For the music we play, college radio is a big part of it," he tells the AV Club. "So it makes the most sense to tour while school is in session… I just sort of moved all my stuff into other people's places." By 2005 it has sold over 20,000 copies.
Reflecting Bright Eyes' growing popularity, within six months he is making enough money to afford to rent his own place again. "It was gradual, but I do remember a slight panic right when I did all that." While Oberst's newfound success offers some financial stability, the fame that accompanies it is less welcome. "The goal is to get at some truth, not to necessarily convey my own experience as an individual to the world," he explains to the AV Club, while telling the NME that "people tend to obsess over what part of the songs have taken place in my life." He's also struggling with the weight of responsibility that popularity brings. "I get letters from these girls telling me every fucked-up thing that's ever happened in their lives. Seriously horrible details. What can you do? Do I send them an 8 x10 with a signature going, 'Here you go, slit your writs!'? I used to write back and give just generic encouragements, but after a while I was like, 'This is lame, I have nothing to offer these people. I have no idea what I'm even doing, how can I possibly give advice?'"
In September, Bright Eyes release the EP Don't Be Frightened of Turning the Page but the record is only available in Japan and the UK. An older recording of that record's "I Won't Ever Be Happy Again" appears on Insound Tour Support Series No. 12, a split EP with labelmates Son, Ambulance. Fevers and Mirrors is the first Bright Eyes record released in the UK through Wichita Records, and Bright Eyes make their London debut. Another split, with Her Space Holiday, also arrives on Wichita, and includes a remix of "Contrast and Compare," while Blood of the Young records releases the two track seven-inch, "Motion Sickness."
Oberst's prolific output continues. Oh Holy Fools: the Music of Son, Ambulance and Bright Eyes, a split between the two Omaha bands, arrives on Saddle Creek. It includes four of the tracks released on the previous year's Don't Be Frightened of Turning the Page. Bright Eyes appear on the track "Dust" on the Faint's Mote/Dust EP. In March, Sub Pop releases the seven-inch "I Will Be Grateful for this Day. I Will Be Grateful for Each Day to Come/When the Curious Girl Realizes She Is Under Glass Again" as part of its singles series. It is limited to 1300 copies. In May, Wichita releases the Drunk Kid Catholic EP, alternately known as 3 New Hit Songs. Oberst forms Desaparecidos with Landon Hedges, Matt Baum, Denver Dalley and Ian McElroy and releases The Happiest Place on Earth EP on Saddle Creek. The band's sound is decidedly more punk than the folkier Bright Eyes, with socially conscious lyrics reflecting on suburban sprawl. The name is a reference to the disappeared ones, people who were arrested by South American military dictatorships. "A lot of the way I write about politics in music… isn't necessarily to say, 'Do this, don't do this,'" he tells Paste. "It's more to show the way that these things affect individuals and a person's psyche."
In May, Bright Eyes release the There is No Beginning to the Story EP. The vinyl version includes two bonus tracks, including a cover of Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend." Oberst also helps out old friend Ted Stevens on his debut album as Mayday, Old Blood, which is released that same month, as is Desaparecidos' Read Music/Speak Spanish. Its cover depict development blueprints swallowing a wheat field. The album earns rave reviews and, buoyed by Oberst's expanding popularity, the band gain a large following and head out on tour with Jimmy Eat World and the Promise Ring.
Bright Eyes' Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground arrives in August, and its dense, often orchestral production proves to be a major breakthrough. Pitchfork praises the album's arrangements and Oberst's increasingly strong melodies. Rolling Stone names it the fourth best album of the year. It also saddles Oberst with the expectations of being "the new Dylan." "That's shorthand for 'he has a lot of words in his songs,'" Oberst will quip on the WTF Podcast. Within a year it has already sold 75,000 copies. The band make their national television debut, playing non-album track "The Trees Get Wheeled Away" on the Late Show with David Letterman.
The band are part of the Album Leaf's first instalment of collaborative seven-inches, and work on a four-track EP with Spoon's Britt Daniel called Home Volume IV for Post-Parlo Records' own collaborative series. They also release a three-way split with Sorry About Dresden and Rilo Kiley on Devil in the Woods Records. The former includes Oberst's brother Matthew amongst its members, while the latter become the first band signed to Saddle Creek from outside the label's close-knit Omaha social group after the Good Life tour with the Los Angeles group. For the holidays, Bright Eyes release an album's worth of Christmas standards appropriately titled, A Christmas Album. Proceeds got to the Nebraska AIDS project.
Frustrated with Saddle Creek's glacial pace when it comes to signing new bands, particularly friend M. Ward. Oberst founds the New York-based Team Love Records with Krenkel, who is now his manager. "Everything was a committee decision," Oberst tells Kot in Ripped. "To sign a band there were about ten of us who had to agree… all the signings took forever and we missed some opportunities." While Team Love pays its own manufacturing costs, it is distributed through Saddle Creek, which is now run by Nansel, business partner Jason Kulbel and seven employees. Saddle Creek is, in turn, distributed through the Warner Bros. Records owned Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA). "Conor brought dozens of records through that he thought were great," Nansel will tell Lazy-I in 2005. "We didn't have the manpower to release all of them, whether we liked them or not. It was suggested that if he wanted to put out all these records, he should have a label."
In its first few years, Team Love releases records by Tilly and the Wall and Jenny Lewis's debut with the Watson Twins. Oberst contributes vocals to "You and I Misbehaving" to the former and to a cover of the Travelling Wilbury's "Handle with Care" on the latter. Oberst's public profile increases; fans hoping to track down the young phenom regularly knock on his parent's door at their Omaha home. In spring, rumours begin swirling that Oberst is dating Winona Ryder after pictures of the two kissing surface. Oberst maintains they're just friends.
He discusses the challenges of writing for his newfound audience with the AV Club. "I try to keep the idea that there's an audience in as little space in my mind as possible, but you can't erase it entirely," he says. "Whether people praise or criticize, it's only going to make me more self-conscious. One way of dealing with that is to write about it. Writing in general gives me clarity." In the same interview, Oberst lists Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Neil Young as the artists he'd most like to meet. In a lengthy June profile of the Saddle Creek family, Spin names Omaha "America's new indie-rock capital." In the story, Nansel reveals that after the Faint (whose album Danse Macabre shifted 42,000 copies) rebuffed some major label offers to remain with Saddle Creek, the label itself fielded a number of offers. "There were some pretty big-time offers, but we decided it wasn't the right thing."
In September, Saddle Creek gathers Bright Eyes' first three albums, including bonus tracks, and the Every Day and Every Night and Don't Be Frightened of Turning the Page EPs together in a vinyl box set. Along with records by the Streets, Cat Power and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Lifted is nominated for the 2003 Shortlist Music Prize, a Polaris/Mercury Prize-like award reserved for American albums that sell fewer than half-a-million copies. Damien Rice's O eventually wins. During their performance at the October ceremony in Los Angeles, Oberst lashes out at Clear Channel, who are one of the show's presenters. "Anyone who won't accept how Clear Channel is ruining popular music has their head in the sand. There's no excuse for one company controlling the majority of entertainment and information in a given country," he'll tell Exclaim! in 2005. Oberst and Mogis contribute to Arab Strap's Monday at the Hug & Pint. Oberst contributes vocals to Cursive's critically lauded album The Ugly Organ and helps out with the debut album from Criteria, which features ex-Cursive member Steve Pedersen and AJ Mogis. Oberst spends much of his winter downtime in New York, a city with which he becomes infatuated.
In January, Crank! Records releases One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels, a split between Bright Eyes and fellow Omaha band Neva Dinova. Mogis and Walcott become permanent members of Bright Eyes. In February, Oberst records an album's worth of folk-oriented material in about a week-and-a-half, but holds off releasing it until he can finish a number of more electronic-rock-oriented tracks on which he and Mogis are simultaneously working. Mogis commissions beats from producers, including Postal Service/Dntel beatmaster Jimmy Tamborello, (Oberst later repays the favour, singing on the DNTL track "Breakfast in Bed"), but ultimately, he produces most of the tracks. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner also makes contributions, adding the recordings' atmospheric vibe. "Obviously, once we got through the first month of recording… there was no way it was going to make sense together," Oberst tells Exclaim! "So we finished them both off." In April, Bright Eyes appear on Craig Kilborn. During the spoken word intro to "Sing, Sing, Sing," which at the time was still unreleased, Oberst calls out California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and President George W. Bush. In October, Bright Eyes perform at several Vote for Change tour dates. Sponsored by MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, the tour is a non-partisan attempt to encourage participation in the democratic process. Nevertheless, Oberst shares the stage with many left-leaning legends like R.E.M., John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen, with whom Oberst develops a casual friendship. In November, he releases two singles simultaneously. Both shoot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, unseating Usher and Alicia Keys' "My Boo." Reaction online is swift: Pitchfork runs the headline: "Bright Eyes Dominates Billboard Singles Chart: Universe Reveals Plans to Self-Destruct."
The folk-oriented I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the more synth and rhythm-driven Digital Ash in a Digital Urn are released simultaneously on January 25. Sales are so brisk that retail giants like Best Buy are re-ordering stock by the end of their first week. I'm Wide Awake debuts at number 10 on the Billboard 200, while Digital Ash lands at number 15. The former features contributions from Norah Jones collaborator Jesse Harris as well as vocals from Emmylou Harris, recorded in Nashville. Described as a reaction to Lifted — lush, yet claustrophobic — the sessions are heavily influenced by Paul Simon's '80s records, particularly Rhythm of the Saints.
Indie music fans' feelings toward their beloved subculture going mainstream are quickly summed up in a season two episode of The OC. "Bright Eyes has two albums in the top ten," remarks indie music nerd Seth Cohen. "I just feel like the rest of the world's finally caught up to me. It's a little bit scary … tell me I'm still special."
"My early work was so far from refined," Oberst tells Paste. "It was… vitriol spewing at whatever was there and that was fine, but I've been trying to move towards more subtlety and more universal ideas." Riding a wave of hype, I'm Wide Awake, the most accessible Bright Eyes record to date, receives widespread acclaim, while the relatively more obtuse Digital Ash is met with decidedly mixed opinions. The same day that the two albums are released, Oberst releases the George W. Bush protest song "When the President Talks to God" on iTunes. It's later issued as seven-inch promo and as the B-side to I'm Wide Awake single, "First Day of My Life."
A decade later he describes the songs a "pretty terrible" on the WTF Podcast, explaining it was a reaction to the disillusionment he felt after the re-election of Bush. At show in Fort Worth, TX, Oberst tells the audience that he hates their state, causing a minor controversy. In May, Bright Eyes perform "When the President Talks to God" on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. To promote the two records, Bright Eyes play a series of more acoustic-oriented shows earlier in the year before pairing up with the Faint, who join Oberst as his backing band, for more rock-style shows in the spring. Also in May, Azure Ray's Maria Taylor, with whom Oberst is romantically linked, releases her solo debut with contributions from Oberst. In August, Saddle Creek celebrates itself with the documentary Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek. At the height of public interest in Oberst, and his Saddle Creek cohorts, the singer abandons Omaha for New York's Lower East side, although he still owns the '20s-era bungalow he bought in his hometown in 2000. In November, Team Love releases Motion Sickness: Live Recordings, which includes live covers of Feist's "Mushaboom" and Elliott Smith's "The Biggest Lie." Dutch band Bettie Serveert release a cover of Bright Eyes' "Lover I Don't Have to Love" on their album Attagirl. The track later appears in an episode of The O.C.
Oberst begins work on a new album, recording upwards of 30 tracks in Portland, OR, New York and Omaha. In March, Bright Eyes play the anti-war concert Bring 'Em Home Now with Michael Stipe, Steve Earle and Rufus Wainwright at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. In October, Saddle Creek collects Bright Eyes singles and rarities as Noise Floor (Rarities: 1998-2005). The vinyl comes with an additional five tracks not included on the CD or digital versions. Bright Eyes and Super Furry Animals release a split seven-inch through Saddle Creek which is remixed by Danger Mouse. The record is a promo release only and is limited to 2000 hand-numbered copies.
In March, the six-track Four Winds EP arrives, with the title track doubling as the first single from Bright Eyes' next record, Cassadaga, which is released in April. The album is named after a community of mediums and healers in Florida. Along with the usual array of Saddle Creek affiliates, Gillian Welch, Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, John McEntire from Tortoise, Rachael Yamagata and members of the band Eisley contribute. The album includes a "Spectral Decoder," which reveals the album's "true" cover, as well as a number of phrases including the lyric "draw another bloody bath" written in Russian, and the song title "The Past Presents the Future" written in Greek. The unique packaging nets Bright Eyes a Grammy. The record debuts at number four on the Billboard 200, selling 58,000 copies in its first week. Fans who pre-order the album on vinyl received a bonus seven-inch featuring non-album track "Susan Miller Rag." CD pre-orders are shipped with a three-inch CD version of the single. In May, Bright Eyes hold a seven-night stand at the Town Hall in New York. Each night Oberst brings out special guests, including Lou Reed, Norah Jones, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Ron Sexsmith. In June, Bright Eyes play "Hot Knives" on the Late Show with David Letterman. A few days later Saddle Creek opens Slowdown in Omaha, a live venue with shops, restaurants and apartments. It is realized with the help of the city, who hope the building will kick-off a revitalization of Omaha's North downtown.
At the beginning of the year, Oberst, Walcott, Rilo Kiley's Jason Boesel, Nik Freitas, Macey Taylor, and Taylor Hollingsworth travel to Mexico where they live and record for two months. Oberst meets Corina Figueroa Escamilla and the two begin dating. Oberst begins playing shows with the group, whom he dubs the Mystic Valley Band, and in October, his first solo record since 1996 is released. The record is well-received, debuting at number 15 on the Billboard 200. It fuses together many of the Oberst's disparate musical identities. He also releases the Gentleman's Pact EP independently. It features two tracks recorded before the Mexico sessions and two recorded after the fact. Oberst performs at several rallies in support of then Senator Barack Obama. In February he, M. Ward and others hold a rally to recruit voters for the Nebraska Democratic caucus at the Slowdown.
In June, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Ward, Mogis and Oberst announce the formation of Monsters of Folk along with their debut album. The self-titled set arrives in September on Shangri-La/Rough Trade. In May, Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band release their second collaboration, Outer South on Merge. This time, Oberst's collaborator's are name-checked on the album's cover. An hour-long doc called One of My Kind chronicles the making of Outer South as well as the growing bond between Oberst and his new bandmates. It is filmed by the band's guitar tech, Phil Schaffart, and is released online for free with a suggested donation to online charity network, Causecast. In June, Oberst tells Rolling Stone that he'd like to abandon the Bright Eyes name. That decision is confirmed by Nansel in the Omaha World-Herald a month later. Nanasel reveals that Obesrt plans to record one more album before "trying to distance himself a little bit from what that means to people."
In January the Twitter account @oberstconnor announces that Monsters of Folk are working on new material. However, the account turns out to be a fake. To date, no further Monsters of Folk material has surfaced. In the spring, Saddle Creek reissues the Bright Eyes/Neva Dinova split, adding an additional four tracks. In June, Oberst joins Kanye West, Sonic Youth, Michael Moore and many other artists in Zach De La Rocha's Sound Strike, a boycott over Arizona's immigration policy. He pens a new track, "Coyote Song," that is released through the Sound Strike website. In a teaser video, he calls the immigration policy "state-sanctioned racism." It's the first time he's used the Bright Eyes moniker for new music since 2007. In July, Oberst reunites Desaparecidos as part of a concert in Omaha. The show, which includes performances from Cursive and Bright Eyes, is organized as a protest against Arizona's immigration policies. At the end of the year, Saddle Creek announces that a new Bright Eyes album will arrive the following year, accompanied by a tour. Oberst marries Escamilla.
Bright Eyes release The People's Key on Oberst's birthday in February. It debuts at number 13 on the Billboard 200. The non-album seven-inch single "Singularity" arrives to coincide with its release. Shortly after the album drops, Bright Eyes perform "Jejune Stars" on the Late Show with David Letterman. The record was held up by a four-month songwriting drought, an unthinkable phenomenon for someone who used to knock out a song a day. The Wall Street Journal reports that the bout of writer's block is exacerbated by pressures from his business team for a new Bright Eyes record. He finally makes a breakthrough after decamping to Los Angeles, then going on a furious writing binge at his home in Omaha. The record is decidedly more modern rock, with Oberst reporting that he'd somewhat burned himself out on the Americana that had marked so much of his post-Lifted material. In July, Polydor releases the Live Recordings EP.
In January, Saddle Creek announces vinyl reissues of Bright Eyes pre-Lifted albums along with several EPs. Oberst helps out Swedish group the First Aid Kit on their track "King of the World" from The Lion's Roar. In May, Team Love releases One of My Kind on DVD along with a CD that collects tracks form the tour-only Gentleman's Pact EP as well as seven alternate takes. The "MariKKKopa"/"Backsell" seven-inch single by Desaparecidos is released through the band's website. The A-side is a protest song aimed at Arizona's immigration laws. It's the band's first new material to surface since their 2002 debut. In April, Oberst announces that he's opening a cocktail bar, called Pageturner's Lounge, in Omaha with Schaffart.
In March Desaparecidos release the seven-inch "Anonymous" / "The Left is Right," featuring a pair of tracks supporting Anonymous and the Occupy Wall Street movement. A second seven-inch, "Te Amo Camila Vallejo"/"The Underground Man" arrives in August. In September, Oberst, along with Jack White, Marcus Mumford and many others, takes part in the concert special Another Day/Another Time a tie-in with the forthcoming Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which celebrates New York's fabled '60s folk scene. In an interview with the film's star Oscar Isaac for Interview Magazine at the end of the year, Oberst reveals that he had actually tried out for the lead role that eventually went to Isaac. In December, an anonymous woman, later revealed to be Joanie Faircloth, accuses Oberst of rape in the comments section of an article on xoJane.com. Faircloth claims the incident happened ten years prior, while she was still 16. She claims that Oberst's brother was her English teacher and arranged for her to meet the musician after one of his shows in Durham, NC.
In January, Oberst's publicist posts a response, denying the allegations on Absolute Punk. In February, Oberst files a million-dollar libel suit against his accuser. He plans to donate any proceeds from the suit to charities benefitting victims of violence against women. At one point TMZ claims that Oberst's label drops him as a result of the accusations, a claim that proves to be false. In July, Faircloth recants her accusation, explaining that her claims were "100 percent false" and that she made up the story as a way to cope with her sick son. Shortly after, Oberst makes his first official statement about the situation: "I have accepted Joanie Faircloth's apology and retraction to clear my name. This has been extremely difficult and stressful for me personally, and for those I love. I'm appreciative of the family, friends, fans, and business partners who supported me throughout this and look forward to happier times as we all move forward with our lives." He later drops the libel suit.
Amidst all the legal wrangling, Upside Down Mountain arrives on Nonesuch, debuting at number 19 on the Billboard 200. The record's aesthetic hues closer to his earlier work than his records with the Mystic Valley Band and receives positive reviews.
With Oberst looking like he might actually be making good on his threat to retire the Bright Eyes moniker, Desaparecidos sign to Epitaph in January and in April, they announce Payola, the follow-up to their 2002 debut. All of the songs from their previous trio of seven-inches appear on the album, which arrives in June and finds Oberst lashing out at politicians and businessmen, sounding more visceral and vital than he has in years.
The Essential Conor Oberst
Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
(Saddle Creek, 2002)
Lifted is finds Oberst and crew working at a creative peak, crafting a record that took Bright Eyes' early experiments pairing lo-fi confessionals with lush, orchestral rock. Later records would cleave off elements of Oberst's sound into various recordings and projects, but this was the last time that grab bag of sounds was presented as a single document.
Read English/Speak Spanish
(Saddle Creek, 2002)
Oberst has never shied away from making political statements, but Desaparecidos was the first time he formed a group around a socially conscious concept. Writing as a band, Read English/Speak Spanish spits bile at the monoculture created by suburban sprawl. It's Oberst's most aggressive, politically pointed, and visceral record.
(Saddle Creek, 2007)
Whereas Bright Eyes' double album breakthrough hasn't aged well, Cassadaga has grown into itself. Recorded at the height of Oberst's fascination with roots and Americana music, it finds a balance between the sonic experimentation of Bright Eyes early work and the more straightforward accessibility of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.