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Hidden Gem: Bright Eyes – Letting Off The Happiness

Written by Music

Anyone familiar with my writing for the Music section of the Courier will know that I will stop at nothing to continuously hawk my favourite band, the 2000s indie-rock collective out of Omaha, Nebraska – Bright Eyes.

Their discography spans three decades and holds a plethora of styles and genres. The band’s main member Conor Oberst has been releasing albums on his own along with various other projects since the age of 12.

In the same year as the band’s debut, Conor released his second album as Bright Eyes. Letting Off The Happiness is the first “actual” Bright Eyes album in my opinion, and exhibits the exact qualities that made Bright Eyes resonate with so many 2000s teens. (I was late to the party sadly, but it didn’t stop me loving them.)

The album was recorded on a lo-fi four-track tape recorder in Conor’s basement, which lends it a feel that works well

Letting Off The Happiness is quintessential teenage angst music, but is so, so much more than that. The album’s a little taster of Conor’s supreme lyrical ability, with lyrics that shake your soul and a diverse array of sounds to go along with them. The album was recorded on a lo-fi four-track tape recorder in Conor’s basement, which lends it a feel that works well, but one that Bright Eyes has since evolved past. I find the lo-fi goes hand in hand with how “mid-western emo” the album is, another since-abandoned Bright Eyes motif.

The opener, ‘If Winter Ends’, is the strongest track on the album by far. It’s a raw and genuine track about the all-encompassing strength of winter sadness. Conor builds the song up to a crescendo before releasing in a chill-inducing final verse. It’s beautiful, and the tape hiss and found sound at the beginning completes the atmosphere. The track is quickly followed by a ballad about a brother drowned in a bathtub (imagery revisited and clarified as fictional in a later album) with raspy vocals and big drums. The third track, ‘Contrast and Compare’, is another stand-out, and is a low, relaxed account of Conor’s depression presented as a beautiful duet and punctuated with a loud, muted wail near the end of the track, and one of the most emotional guitar solos in Bright Eyes’ discography.

The fourth track, ‘The City Has Sex’, demonstrates how varied the album is, as a post-punk record drenched in teenage angst. It’s also easy to see on this track how some people just don’t like Oberst’s vocals. This is followed by a mostly mellow, folksy track, ‘The Difference In The Shades’. The next track, ‘Touch’ is probably the most palatable track, with upbeat, slightly techno music overpowering Conor’s gloomy, tired vocals. The track does get more intense towards the end, like a lot of Bright Eyes’ classics. ‘June in the West Coast’ follows, and is a fairly twee acoustic indie track. It’s a very pretty, reflective song, with sad yet strangely upbeat lyrics.

I’m a sucker for shaky, emotional vocals

The tone of the album shifts near the end slightly, with the eighth track, ‘Pull My Hair’. It’s a surprisingly lustful song for an 18-year-old but evidently, they get freaky in the mid-west. It’s a very passionate, loud, and brash track with a hard to describe quality that makes it an absolute banger. It’s followed by ‘A Poetic Retelling Of An Unfortunate Seduction’, which is…certainly a title. The song’s alright but fairly juvenile compared to the rest of the album, but I’m a sucker for shaky, emotional vocals.

Track ten, ‘Tereza And Tomas’, takes up almost exactly half of the album’s 50-minute run-time, but it’s just five minutes, followed by 20 minutes of a guitar drone, and then another five-minute sloppy, more tired version of the third track. ‘Tereza and Tomas’ is a lullaby-like song, based on the Milan Kundera book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s a mellow closer for an album stuffed with so many ups and downs. The version of ‘Contrast And Compare’ on the track is even more tired and broken-down than the original track, with heavily distorted found-sound and Conor singing like he’s on the verge of crying, which is frankly when he’s at his best. Any attempt at melody is abandoned and the song is kind of spooky. The Japanese release of the album contained a bonus track called ‘Empty Canyon, Empty Canteen’, which is another sad, dreamy track with heavily symbolic surrealist imagery.

All in all, the album is an oft-overlooked part of Bright Eyes’ evolution, and holds up as a seminal work of midwestern-indie. The first album with future fixture Mike Mogis producing, It’s far from their best work, but definitely one that isn’t talked about as much as it should be, even amongst fans.

Last modified: 22nd June 2020

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