Review Summary: Conor Oberst displays a passion and love for his music, but his songwriting and vocals on his first effort under the Bright Eyes name are lacking.
Oftentimes the best ideas come from young minds who have not yet been debased by the brutish madness of the real world. Conor Oberst is unique, however, because, at such a young age, he seemed to have a grasp on the challenges and pains that seemed to await him. Given that he wrote and recorded all the songs on the Bright Eyes' debut as a teenager in a basement, calling him precocious would be an understatement. But is it fair to call this amalgam of musical excerpts the first Bright Eyes album? Maybe not, but since Conor is considered by many to be the embodiment of the spirit of Bright Eyes, designations like this are almost unavoidable. A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded '95-'97
exhibits Conor's beautifully poetic temperament, but it fails to deliver an articulate purpose, making it sound too untidy and unfocused.
There are some positive aspects to this collection of tracks. First, there is some noticeable experimentation going on beyond Oberst's acoustic guitar. He plays with some strange beats and sound effects that attest to his exploration. The gripping screeches and the unruly wind chimes on "I Watched You Taking Off" and the engrossing sound collage introducing "All of the Truth" prove that Oberst is willing to venture into unclaimed territory. Additionally, he does not abide by the rules of structure, frequently allowing his lyrics and thoughts to flow freely without the interruption and inculcation of a chorus. The pretty "Lila" shows that he can write a genuine, bittersweet love song. His pop sensibility, nonetheless, shines through nicely on tracks like "Falling Out of Love at This Volume", "Puella Quam Amo Est Pulchra", and "One Straw (Please)".
Unfortunately, the songwriting is not so impressive on the album as a whole. Some tracks don't seem to go anywhere meaningful, such as "How Many Lights Do You See?", while others stray too far for their own good like "Supriya". The ideas are there, but the songs that emerge are short of remarkable. Some tracks also feel too similar, which is inevitable when most of the songs are driven by Conor's voice and his guitar. Toward the backend of the album, the recycled formula seems to have run its course, especially considering the fact that this album feels too long at over an hour.
Aside from the abysmal production, nothing truly links the tracks to one another, which is to be expected with a grouping of tracks that together represent more of a compilation than a unified whole. The lack of surprises on this album causes this compilation to fall into its own dull sense of routine. Some songs stand out, like the final track "The 'Feel Good' Revolution", but nothing is introduced to really break the mold. The lyricism is often poignant, but it doesn't make up for the relatively uneventful music that accompanies it. In many ways, these songs do serve to represent Conor's youth, but he struggles to convey his delightful personality through the tired folk songs he assembles on this album.
His vocals are not the album's biggest issue, but they are sometimes distracting. While they undoubtedly capture his passion and depth, his vocals are very off on certain sections. When "Patient Hope In New Snow" and "Saturday as Usual" escalate, for example, his voice seems utterly tired and strained to the point of physical pain. His vocals are not necessarily bad on this album, but they often overpower the instruments and come across as too melodramatic. On "Emily, Sing Something Sweet" his voice sounds even more out of place when isolated completely from the lively strumming and percussion. Despite Conor's admirable commitment to gentleness on this album, the lack of a consistent emotional arc and theme makes it difficult for him to sustain interest. A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded '95-'97
ultimately suffers from amateur songwriting, histrionic vocal deliveries, and a lack of musical variation and vision.
The first album wearing the Bright Eyes name is missing the splendid songwriting that would put them on the map, but it really only was Conor Oberst's first shot under the moniker. Plus he was essentially doing everything by himself! All in all, the album is tedious and unexciting, which is a shame since there are many hints of love and passion sprinkled throughout the tracks. However, if one looks beyond the weak musical execution, one can clearly see a spark within Conor Oberst, a willingness to put himself out there for nothing more than a love of what he does.
Falling Out of Love at This Volume
Puella Quam Amo Est Pulchtra
I Watched You Taking Off
The 'Feel Good' Revolution