1. All in the Family: Despite his rising superstar status, Conor stays firmly committed to his do-it-yourself ethic with a little help from his Frontal Lobe, which regulates planning, organizing and problem-solving. Despite receiving juicy major-label offers since his 2002 release, Lifted, sold 250,000 copies, Conor recently released two full-lengths, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, on his hometown Omaha label, Saddle Creek. He also records and tours with the label's close-knit network of musicians, including members of Rilo Kiley, Cursive, the Good Life, and the Faint. As for problem-solving, Conor told Clear Channel Entertainment—whose widespread control of venues and radio stations in the U.S. has some critics shouting "monopoly"—where to stick it at MTV's 2003 Shortlist Awards: "There will be no more real music anymore if we keep letting people shove it down our fucking throats," Conor said, adding that Bright Eyes would no longer play Clear Channel venues.
2. Folk the Government: Folk music was a vehicle for voicing political views and societal critiques long before Conor Oberst was a gleam in his parents' eyes, but the 24-year-old is reinventing folk for a young, wartime generation on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. Conor's Parietal Lobe, which controls his perception of the world and apprehension, is working overtime on Bright Eyes' acoustic, folk-oriented album, which includes deeply personal, diary-entry type tunes such as "Lua," but also flexes its folk muscle on protest songs like "Land Locked Blues," which offers simple variations on the refrain, "If we walk away, they'll walk away."
3. It's All in the Details: With each Bright Eyes record, Conor grows as a storyteller, and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning does little to dispell the idea that he is now one of the best. This is due to Conor's Occipital Lobe, which controls his acute vision, shown in the detailed imagery he delivers on "We Are Nowhere and It's Now" or "Poison Oak." Oberst's insights—"Why are you scared to dream of God, when it's salvation that you want?"—are what make the songs meaningful, but the details, like boyhood memories of when a "telephone was a tin can on a string" are what first catch the ear and make you care why he's "drunk as hell on a piano bench" later. When Conor describes partying at an "actor's West Side loft" or observing the "sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection," he puts listeners smack in the middle of New York City, his new home.
4. Humble Roots: Oberst's sallow face and big, wet, martyr-ish eyes have made him "crushable," by Elle Girl magazine's standards. His mug has also found its way onto numerous music mags after the singles "Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" took over the top two spots on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart in November. So how does Conor stay grounded amid the hype? That is the work of his Temporal Lobe, the part of the brain in charge of memory and understanding. Conor has a history of embracing his flaws and past rather than his current successes. An unfavorable review is printed right on Bright Eyes' A Collection of Songs: Recorded 1995-1997 that describes the album as "a 20 song torture hour." Similarly, Conor doesn't shy away from confessions in his lyrics: from being a bad boyfriend—"you can count on me to split"—to a "trite and cheap" songwriter whose recordings are "a waste of tape." Whether that endearing humility is now being exploited as a clever marketing tool is up to listeners to decide.
5. Motorin': Bright Eyes had only offered a few danceable songs previous to Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, but Conor has seriously employed his Motor Cortex, which controls movement, on his first electro-pop effort. His songwriting skills take the forefront, but Mike Mogis, a.k.a. Digital Audio Engine, Jimmy Tamborello of the Postal Service, and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs add enough '80s-inspired dance beats that you just might find Conor's wavering voice mingling with laser lights and colored smoke at your local danceteria. "Arc of Time (Time Code)" sounds like it could've appeared on Paul Simon's Graceland with its Ladysmith Black Mambazo-ish, tap-dancey rhythms, and "I Believe in Symmetry" recalls Nena's "99 Red Balloons." It's clear that I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is the stronger of Bright Eyes' two new releases. But Digital Ash serves as an interesting side project, allowing fans of the brooding boy wonder to shake with both joy and sadness.
Bright Eyes plays with Neva Dinova Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., 224-2038. 7 pm. SOLD OUT. All ages.