Because he spouts political screeds, spews sprawling folk songs, pounds a battered acoustic, cares not for hair brushes nor traditional release schedules, and infuses everything he does with a punk rock spirit, Conor Oberst often gets tagged as his generation’s Bob Dylan. But for all the easy comparisons, there are more points of difference: Oberst is blindingly earnest, Dylan is sarcastic, Conor writes personal, vulnerable songs, Bobby rarely peers out from behind his veneer; Conor is relatively straightforward, even Dylan’s most personal songs are veiled in dense references and shrill harmonica. Conor Oberst is – however – a gifted, prolific songwriter who commands critical respect and deep fandom alike, so I suppose the comparison does make sense. Who am I arguing with?
‘Poison Oak’ is a perfectly crafted song, tucked in the penultimate position on 2005’s ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’, one of two albums released by Bright Eyes on the same day, Gunners-style. It’s outstanding how many amazing songs Oberst wrote during this period – across 22 tracks, neither album has any real filler, plus he released the insanely popular Bush-bash ‘When the President Talks To God‘ around the same time.
‘Poison Oak’ details a friendship that sprouted at an early age. The plot is explicit yet manages to avoid hitting any of the big moments too overtly. There’s the childhood memory almost cliched with its tin-can phone imagery, the defiant drive towards Mexico, the heroin addiction, the hint at PTSD, the field trampled to mud, the shirt stained with grief. The friend died – specific causes unknown and largely irrelevant – and Oberst is reeling but sympathetic. “I’m glad you got away, but I’m still stuck out here. My clothes are soaking wet from your brother’s tears.”
The relationship spans decades, yet secrets are still discovered after death: the series of cross-dressing Polaroids locked away (“Were you made ashamed, why’d you lock them in a drawer?” Oberst wonders into the void). In the end, music is his salvation – in particular minor-key music – his emotion uncorked and loosened with alcohol. “Now I’m drunk as hell on a piano bench. And when I press the keys, it all gets reversed. The sound of loneliness makes me happier.”
That’s the secret, saving grace of sad music: it’s profoundly comforting to realise there is no emotion you can feel – regardless of how singular and solitary it may seem – that hasn’t been captured acutely in at least one song. Of course, finding that song is another story.