Conor Oberst stared out at the audience, squinting and seething. The Black Cat in Washington, DC was maybe halfway full, and a pretty good number of the people in that room were not going to let the sensitive young man onstage interrupt their conversations. Constant mass-chatter hum was always a problem at shows in DC, but on this night, for whatever reason, the crowd was just not interested in anything happening onstage. “You know, you don’t have to be here,” Oberst told the people who’d just paid to see him play. “You could just… leave.” (I’m quoting from memory, but that memory is pretty vivid.) Then Oberst launched, dejectedly, into whatever the next song was. Luckily enough, the song was about dejection. All of the songs were about dejection. I saw Oberst on a bad night, but at that point, Oberst exclusively made bad-night music. It seemed fitting.
In 2000, Bright Eyes was basically just Conor Oberst, 20-year-old broken-heart prodigy. Mike Mogis, who would eventually become a full member of Bright Eyes, produced his records and played lots of instruments on them, and the other musicians came from the same weirdly fertile Omaha scene that had produced Oberst. (The night I saw him in DC, the rest of the Bright Eyes lineup, if I’m remembering right, consisted entirely of attractive young women — an unintentional mumblecore remake of the “Addicted To Love” video.) But Oberst sounded like a kid alone, bemoaning his solitude. He was good at bemoaning things.
We thought it was emo. I first heard “Something Vague,” the transcendent teeth-gnasher that introduced me to Bright Eyes, on a mix CD from a friend who listened almost exclusively to emo. On that CD, “Something Vague” shared space with songs by Mineral and Knapsack and Braid, and it fit. “Emo” was a fungible concept in 2000. No bands wanted to be called emo, and yet the idea of a whole genre built around sensitive poetic fumblings seemed new and exciting and expansive, not like something to be ashamed of. (We thought Modest Mouse and the Dismemberment Plan and At The Drive-In were emo, too.) Oberst, with his wounded quaver and his literary self-seriousness, only made sense under the “emo” umbrella. For those of us who jumped onboard with Fevers And Mirrors, it was pretty disorienting when Oberst went full NPR-core and blew up a few years later. The idea that someone this messily raw-nerved could get famous making pretty coffee-table music seemed deeply unlikely.
Oberst wasn’t interested in emo. He made that clear enough over the next few years. Oberst came from his own scene, his own context. As a member of Commander Venus, he’d been a big part of Omaha’s sui generis all-ages indie rock universe, and he drew from that community when he made music. Some of the musicians on Fevers And Mirrors — Cursive’s Tim Kasher, the Faint’s Todd Fink — were themselves in the process of becoming famous-ish when Fevers And Mirrors dropped. Oberst’s earlier records, the ones that he released in his teenage years, were explicit in their Neutral Milk Hotel worship. His later ones worked hard to place him within a lineage of venerated singer-songwriter poets. But Fevers And Mirrors, when it arrived 20 years ago tomorrow, hit hard as a document of flowery, pretentious punk rock self-expression. It was there for us when we needed it.
There’s a moment on “Something Vague” where Oberst’s voice almost loses touch with the entire idea of music, where it becomes a guttural snarl-sob. For the whole song — the whole album, really — Oberst’s voice sounds like it’s about to fall apart, like he’s ready to dissolve. But on “Something Vague,” he really does. As the music builds, his voice gets louder, too: “The bridge disappears! And I’m standing on air! With nothing! Holding! Me!” He sounds like he’s exploding, but he’s just building up steam for the real explosion, which arrives one line later: “And I hang like a star! Fucking glowing in the dark! For all the star! Ving! Eyes! To see!” On the word glowing, his voice falls off the beat and turns into a dying-animal moan. It sounds wrecked, dessicated, inhuman. It killed me then, and it kills me now.
Keep in mind: This is Conor Oberst singing about a dream he once had. You never want to hear about people’s dreams. They’re always tedious, and they never mean as much as the people think. Oberst’s vision of twinkling in the winter air is not, in itself, terribly compelling. But the way he gasps those words out is primal sad-kid beauty. He’s hurt, and he’s confused, and he’s wondering himself whether these dreams have any meaning. (It’s right there in the title: “Something Vague.” Oberst himself knows that he’s talking out of his ass.) But Oberst gives that feeling an urgent teeth-gritting force. He needs to get it out, and he needs us to hear it.
There’s a real sense of craft in a song like “Something Vague” — to my mind, still the best song that Oberst has ever written — and to the rest of Fevers And Mirrors. As a producer and multi-instrumentalist, Mike Mogis always had an instinctive grip on folk-rock modes of communication. He knew how to make Oberst sound cinematic, building up the accordion drones and Celtic flutes and acoustic-guitar strums underneath Obert’s wracked half-sob. And there was a technique to the way Oberst sang. He wasn’t a technically fluid vocalist, but he knew how to make that emotionally stricken quality of his voice work for him. After Fevers And Mirrors, a whole lot of sad kids tried to sing like Conor Oberst. None of them ever managed it, though Titus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles at least came close.
All throughout Fevers And Mirrors, Oberst and Mogis take private trials — heartbreak, depression, over-reliance on alcohol — and they make them majestic. On “Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh,” Oberst quotes a friend on the phone who’s telling him about what an ex might be doing: “I didn’t want to tell you this/ No, it’s just some guy she’s been hanging out with/ I don’t know, the past couple weeks I guess.” Deep in the mix, a busy signal blinks maddeningly. Then, as the pedal steels and the vibraphones come in, Oberst lays on the self-pity: “You’d always be there/ Well, where are you now?” A couple of songs later, he needs to paraphrase Fiddler On The Roof to properly evoke the endless trudge of deepest depression.
On Fevers And Mirrors, Oberst sounds broken. Mere minutes into the album, after the endless opening bit of a little kid reading from a book, Oberst diagnoses his own substance-abuse issues, using them as a warning: “Don’t degrade yourself the way that I do/ Because you don’t depend upon all the shit that I use to make my moods improve.” But his moods never improve, and on “The Calendar Hung Itself…,” Oberst viciously lashes out at someone for having the audacity to move on to another guy after she’s been with him: “Oh, does he know that place below your neck that is your favorite to be touched?/ And does he cry through broken sentences/ like ‘I love you far too much’?” (That anger definitely ties Fevers And Mirrors in with the whole guys-mad-at-girls thing that was happening in emo at the time and that persists to this day.)
It’s not all so direct. Oberst leans heavily on ornate symbolism all through the album. He invokes an imaginary character, Arienette, to keep him safe from wolves. He draws long and elaborate analogies that don’t hold together. He wails out lyrics that look utterly preposterous on paper: “Language just happened, it was never planned/ And it’s inadequate to describe where I am.” It’s a lot. Fevers And Mirrors is a deeply self-indulgent work, from that opening children’s-book bit to the extended six-minute fake radio interview that takes up most of “An Attempt To Tip The Scales.”
The radio interview is funny if you understand the background. It’s the Faint’s Todd Fink, Oberst’s old Commander Venus bandmate, doing a note-perfect Oberst impression and clowning him viciously by making Oberst make increasingly absurd claims about his own artistry. At the time, Pitchfork critic Taylor M. Clark, not quite realizing what was going on, was scandalized by the idea that Oberst would feature a friend praising his album on that very same album. Heard as one friend making fun of another, it’s good shit: “I want people to feel sorry for me. I like to feel the burn of the audience’s eyes on me when I’m revealing all my darkest secrets into the microphone.” But it’s also absolutely fucking interminable. Even when I was young enough to take most of Fevers And Mirrors seriously, I could never make it through that interview.
But mostly, I was young enough, and I did take the album very seriously. I was 20 when Fevers And Mirrors came out — the same age as Oberst. When I found the album, I was living in an art-student flophouse and reeling from my first bad breakup. I needed that shit. Fevers And Mirrors exists for people who are right around that age — who know enough to be embarrassed about wallowing in their own piddly personal pain but who can’t stop themselves from doing it anyway. Lil Peep, the late emo-rap figurehead, was 20 when he whine-rapped over a “Something Vague” sample on the 2016 track “Worlds Away.” He knew.
Fevers And Mirrors is a faintly humiliating album about a faintly humiliating time in life. But if it found you at that time, then chances are good that it imprinted itself upon you. I feel 20 every time I hear it. Sometimes, I need to feel 20 in the worst way. It feels faintly appropriate that Fevers And Mirrors, an album that almost seems custom-built to appeal to 20-year-olds, is now itself 20. I wonder if the album feels like nobody understands it.
Pretty soon after Fevers And Mirrors, Conor Oberst became a star. He wouldn’t have to worry about club crowds chattering through his sets much longer. In the 2010 novel Freedom, Jonathan Franzen imagines an aging rocker catching a slightly later Bright Eyes show in DC, at the bigger 9:30 Club, on what I think is supposed to be the Lifted tour. Franzen’s character curdles in envy over the rapture that the DC crowd gives Oberst. It’s been all rapture since then. When the pandemic ends and the reactivated Bright Eyes get to head out on the big tour they’d been planning, Oberst won’t have to worry about fighting with disinterested audiences. But on that night at the Black Cat, I saw Conor Oberst miserable, dejected, downcast, passive-aggressive. I felt like I was seeing the real Conor Oberst, the one who’d spoken to me on Fevers And Mirrors. I loved it.