On the track “Trees Get Wheeled Away,” Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst has a problem: “There’s a virgin in my bed, and she’s takin’ off her dress, and I’m not sure what I am gonna do.” Gee, I don’t know. Why don’t you whine about that one for a while and get back to us, Conor?
But really, it’s too easy to make fun of Conor Oberst. Oh, those lyrics — relentlessly earnest! Oh, that voice — quavering and yet bratty in its insistence! This is the guy who has opened a song by bleating (in the rising tones of a perpetual question), “I had a brother once? Who drowned? In a bathtub?” He dares anyone with a glint of cynicism to smirk and that’s what’s breathtaking, and what perhaps is the main appeal of emo for someone who isn’t a teenager with black eyeliner and greasy bangs. Most of us spend most of the time finding feelings a little embarrassing. Not Conor Oberst. And this is cathartic. Or refreshing. Or something.
“Noise Floor: Rarities 1998-2005” collects seven years worth of the outtakes, collaborations and demos that Oberst has recorded under the name Bright Eyes. Bear in mind that 1998-2005 were a fruitful seven years for Oberst: They brought forth seven albums, including a live recording, a Christmas record, and the 2005 double-release of “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” and “Digital Ashes in a Digital Urn.” A young artist releasing an album of rarities after seven records in as many years runs the risk of looking self-indulgent. Tiresome. Unbecomingly prolific. A young artist runs the risk of being Ryan Adams. If such an album is to hold the interest of anyone besides hard-core devotees, the material better speak for itself, delivering some kind of indispensable addition to the existing oeuvre. It better be necessary.
Beginning a record with two full minutes of static and background chatter is not a good way to cultivate this sense of urgency. And, on “Fevers and Mirrors,” this is exactly what Conor Oberst does. Take it as a warning. There isn’t anything revelatory here, anything begging to be heard, anything that can’t wait for two minutes of static. “Noise Floor” doesn’t illuminate any side of Oberst we haven’t already seen, it just condenses a large portion of his still-young career into one 16-song serving.
From lo-fi early work to more recent electronica, the sonic territory Oberst has covered is held together by his unmistakable voice as a lyricist. Despite the many boy-wonder Bob Dylan comparisons Oberst has garnered, words often seem to get the better of him: “Our bodies twist like shoelaces,” he announces on “I Will Be Grateful For This Day.” Whoa! Twisty. Then again, the Dylan line always seemed off. Where Oberst is earnest to the point of clumsiness, Dylan was sinuously, effortlessly enigmatic. Oberst is painstakingly himself; Dylan remains elusive. It’s hard to think of two pop culture figures so emphatically different.
Oberst sounds best when he has a governing principle outside himself to work around, something like his appropriation of country tropes provided on “I’m Wide Awake.” And that kind of principle is exactly what “Noise Floor” lacks. This is not “Wide Awake” — probably Bright Eyes’ most broadly appealing record to date — but, fortunately, nor is it “Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground.” Instead, there are bits of both to be found here, moments where we can hear the warm twang of the former or the theatrical bombast of the latter. There are also a handful of electronica-tinged tracks, calling to mind the experimentations of “Digital Ashes.” But, for Bright Eyes, the electronic approach has always seemed like a point of pride rather than a musical innovation — one feels that Oberst wants to prove he can be honest without an acoustic guitar. These interludes also indicate another problem with that shop-worn Dylan analogy: When Oberst fiddles around with synthesized bleeps and bloops, it’s not a Dylan-goes-electric kind of moment. He isn’t shedding his skin and emerging a new artist. He’s just putting on a new suit.
In the end, the album is less a primer for the uninitiated than a scrapbook for the long-time fan. A listener who hasn’t already acquired a taste for Oberst’s affectations probably won’t be won over by “Noise Floor.” But for those who want to gather round and reminisce, to look back on great feelings felt and metaphors wrought — enjoy.
Noise Floor: Rarities 1998-2005