Review Summary: Fucking glow in the dark
When Bright Eyes released Letting Off the Happiness in 1998, Conor Oberst was still a few years shy of his twenties and therefore that album, in spite of having some good memorable moments, suffered from a lack of focus and direction that is quite characteristic of early youth. On Fevers and Mirrors on the contrary, the main theme is pretty clear from the get-go, as soon as the little boy's monologue in the beginning of "A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever, And A Necklace" makes way to a melancholic guitar chord with Conor barely whispering delicate but striking lyrics like "don't destroy yourself like those cowards do, and maybe the sun keeps coming up because it has gotten used to you". Everything in this album revolves around these sentiments of depression, loneliness and the monotony of a life that you're not able or willing to escape from.
For example in "A Scale, A Mirror and Those Indifferent Clocks" you find out that not only hours and days are waiting to be left behind, but even months and years are stalled on the fly of a calendar page. Similarly in the beautiful "Something Vague" the burden of the everyday routine gets so oppressive that when Conor's voice quivers in the middle of it longing for a child's fantasy dream, you feel that it is not only an understandable reaction but the only rational one to keep yourself, at least a little sane to prepare for the next same old day.
And Fevers and Mirrors offers too many unsettling moments like this, from the resignation found in the deceptively simple phrases of "An Attempt to Tip the Scales" to the children choir sarcastically singing "C'mon, get happy" amidst a lo-fi piano based nostalgia trip. Still it is in general Conor's particular voice and writing talent to progressively saturate simple final lines like "You're a fool!" or "This isn't happening" with an overwhelming emotional weight that makes the album such a powerful and exhausting listen.
It's not all total bleakness though, at least not instrumentally. In "The Calendar Hung Itself", a frantic drum beat follows Conor spiting out as many words as he can about a lover's obsession, all blend with a keyboard synth that could've easily came out from an old Nintendo game, while "Sunrise Sunset" with its waltz-like verses and powerful choruses, and "The Center of the World" with its superb oniric lyrics and perturbing climax, add enough musical variety to the record.
There's a shadow that is nevertheless maintained throughout the album. In the majestic "Arienette", Conor evokes an idealized feminine figure to protect him from the wolves and other vicious animals which actually represent his own crazy states of mind. The allegories presented here are probably the best of his entire career ("And the desperate are water, they’ll run down forever as they soak into silence, and end up together in a dark and distant, dark and distant place. So don't leave me here with only mirrors watching me") and accompanied by a perfect combination of acoustic guitars, percussion and wind effects, all sums up for the best song and critical centerpiece of the album.
Because at the end of the day, that's what the album concept must be about, right? The hope that all these feelings of sadness, despair and claustrophobia can be somewhat healed or dispelled with that special someone who can help you bear your own personal bull*** in the same way that you'll try to carry hers. Conor (and Bright Eyes) went on to make albums more critically acclaimed and popular than this; but he never made one better, more intimate and more revealing of this never-ending human search for Arienette, the perfect and impossible to exist significant other.