Yet Oberst remains one of the most vivid and imaginative of pop poets. Still not satisfied with the hedonism, brutishness and lack of purposeful planning he sees in himself and fellow mankind. Still aiming to open (and blow) minds with his music.
The results are evident in "The People's Key," the latest and one of the best albums Oberst has made under the group identity Bright Eyes. This one features not only some of his most invigorating and sardonically right-on songs - miniature morality plays like "Shell Games" and "One for You, One For Me" - but also spacey, spoken between-song-sermonizing by his musician/pontificator buddy Denny Brewer, tracing the course of good-'n'-evil through the ages.
The cumulative rush is sometimes akin to one of those heavy album encounters with finger-pointers Pink Floyd. Ah, but this one comes with Bright Eyes wide open and with the comforting thought it's still within our power to shape a better future.
Appearing tonight at the Mann with Bright Eyes (Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott also featured), plus kindred souls M. Ward (a Oberst cohort in Monsters of Folk) and most worthy So-Cal folk rock band Dawes, Conor sat still recently to chat about the process.
Q: In prepping for our talk, I came upon an excellent selection of your lyrics at Wikiquote and was struck anew how well the stuff holds up as poetry. Ever think of putting out a book? And when writing, how much are you thinking about serving the audience that, at Bright Eyes shows I've attended, seems to hang on your every word?
A: I've been approached by the publishing world, but I don't necessarily think the words would stand up without the melody. To me, they're tied in such a fundamental way, though we do provide a booklet of lyrics with the album. Typically my songs start with a vocal melody and maybe a line or two. I usually work out the melody first, then comes the work on the lyrics. The cadence and the phrasing, the enunciation is so tied to the melody.
I don't think of the audience that much when making the music, though the idea of the audience has become more real over the years. I still try and keep them out of the room, so to speak, when it comes to making the songs. The biggest disservice you can do to someone who's interested in your art is to pander or cater to them and their ideas of what your music is.
Q: Your work in the '90s had a lot of existential despair. Now you seem a bit more positive, though hardly a Pollyanna. Is that a natural by-product of growing older?
A: It's difficult when you're 18 to 20, that period of life when you have to make that leap from childhood to whatever. I had a great childhood, but no matter how good or bad it is, childhood comes with a suspension of disbelief. Reality hasn't set in completely. Then when you cross that threshold into adulthood, it's shocking.
I had a slightly unique situation where I was writing songs then that reflected that shock. Eventually it kind of wears off. You get little callouses, find other ways of looking at things. For me it's a constant search for peace of mind, more than anything. I'm willing to look at any possibilities.
With spiritual stuff, it's not that I'm a believer in anything, I'm more a humanist. That's a loose mantel.
Q: How about crossing over the age threshold into your 30s, as you did a year ago. Can you still trust yourself?
A: I tried not to think about it when the day came [laughing], but a couple months later I felt a little depressed. One time Cyndi Lauper told me "growing old sucks." She was wearing green hair at an airport in Japan. There's a lot of truth in that. A lot of our culture has such a fixation with youth, even though I think life gets better, easier. It's just not that big a deal.
One of my absolute best friends just turned 78. When we hang out, I have no idea how old he is. A lot of people associate getting older with losing interest, losing passion, no longer fitting in. You should always be exploring, trying to find the beauty in the world.
Q: Where is this guy Denny Brewer coming from, apart from being a member of the Refried Ice Cream band and sounding like a spaced version of the actor Craig T. Nelson?
A: That's a good question, and uh, anybody's guess. He's one of those people I ran across in El Paso, Texas, when I was making this record down there, and I got totally transfixed by his stories, his concepts. We always have a tradition on Bright Eyes albums of a long introduction, and he just popped into my mind to open this one. He walks that line between genius and insanity, a very interesting space to occupy.
Q: You've always recorded on your own label, Saddle Creek. Does that take the pressure off for you, in terms of when and what you put out? Nobody stood in your way a few years ago when you put out two albums simultaneously. And I read recently that you and Mike Mogis have invested all your money in a recording studio. What's up with that?
A: [Laughing] That's a little exaggeration, but between the two of us, we did put in a lot. Mike also produces other bands there. And for me, just to have a place to make our music, no matter what happens externally, is very important. We don't make music for the masses.
I've seen from other friends who're working with big corporations, there's external pressure to achieve certain markers of success. That's something we have to deal with less, but we and our friends who run the label, we do put pressure on ourselves.
Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 52d and Parkside Ave., 7:30 tonight, $25-$33.50, 800-745-3000, www.manncenter.org. Dawes also play a free in-store celebrating their great new album "Nothing Is Wrong," at Main Street Music, 4400 Main St., 5:30 tonight, 215-487-7732.