It’s unusual for Conor Oberst to move backward. Over the past ten years, the Omaha, Nebraska native– once described by Rolling Stone as “Rock’s boy genius”– has, in total, released eleven records under various guises including Monsters of Folk and two albums with The Mystic Valley Band. His revisiting of 2004′s One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels – the first four tracks of which are exclusive to the 2010 reissue– is a welcome journey back home to Bright Eyes, his original and best know moniker.
As the title suggests, the sessions began when Oberst and Neva Dinova frontman Jake Bellows brought out the guitars over, well, one jug of wine. The Dylan comparisons, which heightened after Bright Eyes’ magnum opus, the 2005 Iraq Invasion- influenced I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, are largely redundant here. Oberst deconstructs folk songs using the DIY sonic textures that so defined Lifted and Letting Off The Happiness; eighties pop is favored instead of sixties folk, chiefly that of The Cure; whether it’s the guitars on ‘Rollerskating’, which echo ‘In Between Days’, or Oberst’s Robert Smith-style wailing throughout. The contrast between Oberst’s fraught voice works starkly against the smooth, laid back vocal of Bellows, whose earthy tones are reminiscent of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.
Of the four new songs that grace this reissue, ‘I Know You’ is the most memorable. Oberst’s urgent, weighty inflections recall Leonard Cohen and the overall production of the song- right from his guitar playing to the reverb-heavy snare drum that haunts throughout- has the feel of a long-lost folk album. The abstractions in the lyrics make leaps and gaps that close tighter with each subsequent hearing.
As the record progresses, the mood and feel of the songs prove too sedate, too predictable and what follows isn’t as engaging as the opening four tracks. The novelty of the stylistic comparisons between Bright Eyes and Neva Dinova eventually wears off and the record never fully takes you to unexpected places. What is most visible; however, is Oberst’s growth from a crumbling 20- something-year-old alternative folk singer– songwriter, screaming into a four- track in the bedroom of his parent’s home to a mature, well– paced and fully formed songwriter; undoubtedly the most skilled of his generation.
A record purely for Bright Eyes completists, the uninitiated should first venture to Fevers and Mirrors, and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning to gauge the development of this truly outstanding talent.