In my early 20's, Saddle Creek seemed like this unstoppable, almost myth-like juggernaut of a label. I don't know, it seemed like they had managed to sign the right bands. It seemed like they were doing all of the right things. Now with hindsight on my side, this seems like an almost hilarious thought, because in all honesty, I didn't really like many bands on Saddle Creek.
Azure Ray was kind of nice. Their songs were pretty, but ultimately they weren't much more than Sarah McLachlan with street cred. And Saddle Creek put out a single, pretty good Rilo Kiley record, The Execution of All Things, but it certainly wasn't anything to lose your shit over. By the time I was 25, they released two very brilliant Cursive records, Domestica and The Ugly Organ, one fine Cursive ep, Burst and Bloom, and the near-flawless album by one-trick pony, Omaha Indie-Scene supergroup Desaparecidos, Read Music/Speak Spanish, but once you throw in bands like Son Ambulance, The Faint, Sorry About Dresden, and a wide cast of other non-starter Creeksters, it should be hard to justify my feelings about Saddle Creek at that time, but it isn't, because Saddle Creek was the only label releasing Bright Eyes records, and in my early 20's, Bright Eyes was nearly the only band releasing records that mattered.
Since about 2005, I've had this on-going debate with my friends about the merit of the Bright Eyes catalog as a whole. Since the duel release of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, each time Conor Oberst puts out a new Bright Eyes effort, I find myself defending a post-Lifted world, trying to convince my friends that these records are good and that Conor Oberst is still a valid artist who's writing solid songs. And, in my defense, I'm right. The four records released since Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground all have they're flashes of brilliance and are otherwise full of completely respectable, good songs. And the latest (and apparently final) Bright Eyes record, The People's Key just may be the most lyrically accomplished thing Oberst has ever written.
But since the release of The People's Key back in February of this year, I find myself listening to "early" Bright Eyes in the small hours a lot and I have to say, for as right as I am about Bright Eyes: 2005-2011, my friends are just as right about everything that came before, because when I hear "February 15", "Center of the World", "Oh, You are the Roots that Sleep Beneath My Feet and Hold the Earth in Place", "From a Balance Beam", "Motion Sickness", or "Amy in a White Coat" (or I guess nearly any other Bright Eyes song from Lifted... or before), I'm instantly reminded why I love this music so much.
At this point I could start prattling on about why I loved (and love) Bright Eyes (and when I say "why I do..." I guess at least a little part of me means "why you should, if you already don't): integrity, honesty, ingenuity, purity, eccentricity, creativity, blah, blah, fucking blah. Yes, Conor Oberst as Bright Eyes is high artistry wrapped up in a catchy-via-funhouse mirror package. And if you listen to those earlier Bright Eyes records, it's hard to argue with the fact that this guy just might be an absolute fucking genius, but I'm not sure any of that really matters here, because honestly, you didn't start listening to Letting Off the Happiness/Fevers and Mirrors/Oh, Holy Fools era Bright Eyes in your early 20's, I'm not sure you're going to hear what I hear.
What my friends have failed to explain and I've failed to realize is that time and place played just as important of a role in loving Bright Eyes as the music itself. Hell, it might even be more important. I mean, I'd like to think that if I heard Fevers and Mirrors for the first time today, I'd love it as much as I do having heard it a decade ago, but I actually think I would probably respect it but find it slightly annoying. I'll never know though, because at 21, I heard Bright Eyes for the first time, which might have been the perfect time.
I was old enough to recognize the brilliance of the songs and young enough to find the seemingly constant self-deprecation brave. I was old enough to be able to wade through the sonic chaos to hear the songs for what they were, and young enough to find the din and distortion charming and creative. I was old enough to respond to the intensity without fear and young enough to still be chilled by it.
Being in your early 20's now isn't the same as it was 30 or even 20 years ago. 20, 30 years ago, it would be pretty normal to be married, have a house and a kid or two by 22 or 23, but today, most people aren't even done with school yet. Being 21 or 22 in 2011 or 2001 just isn't the same as it was in 1971, even though expectations seem to be the same. It's confusing as shit. Sure, we struggle with who we are in our teens, but it's even tougher in your early 20's because at least no one expects a 15 year old to have a clue who they are, but everyone assumes a 23 year old already knows.
And really, that's all Oberst was writing about early on; the struggle of trying to figure out who you are and what your place is in the world even though you're expected to already know. And for someone my age to hear that at that time in their life was amazing, maybe even crucial. And so sure, the latter Bright Eyes records are good, possibly even great, but that early stuff, that was pure magic.