A lot of WCDB DJs, myself included, drool over the work of Bright Eyes and frontman Conor Oberst. He’s likely the premier singer in the indie folk genre for the past generation, and has released a few albums and songs in his career which could easily be referred to as classics. Letting Off the Happiness came early in the career, following only A Collection of Songs, and it captured Oberst immediately before he started making the epic albums that would grow to define his career. One of the nice parts about Letting Off the Happiness is that Bright Eyes was still developing at that time, and you’re able to hear the birthing of some of the imperfections that became defining qualities within his career.
Fevers & Mirrors doesn’t have a constant sound within the album, rather rough transitions will frequently carry you from an energetic yeller into a paced psychotic breakdown before ultimately landing on a stripped down acoustic song. They’re all definitive parts of the Bright Eyes discography, but on Letting Off the Happiness there seems to be no worry about separating them or spacing them out, rather just allowing us to figure out the transition ourselves after repeated listens.
We also get a great insight into Oberst’s lyrical talent on this album, as the opening lines of the intro track immediately tie back to the previous album with “I dreamt of a fever, one that would cure me of this cold winter”. A consistent quality in every Bright Eyes album is his ability to make the right opening track, an important quality for an artist because that entirely determines your anticipation for the remainder of the album. “At The Bottom of Everything”, “Clauridients (Kill or be Killed)”, “The Big Picture”, “Time Code”, and “Firewall” all had to rely on a talking session or radio play in order to accomplish this, but “If Winter Ends” sets the tone for Letting Off The Happiness without that aid. You can also find the great emotional moments on this album, like Oberst’s scream at the end of “The City Has Sex” or the shocking statement of losing a brother before you could even learn his name in “Padraic My Prince”.
The reason why I wanted to go with Letting Off the Happiness is because it played a really key role in the development of the band. Fevers & Mirrors is an excellent album in hindsight, but people weren’t really ready to hear that sound from this band yet. Letting Off the Happiness took a bit of a step back from that ambition of a complete album and just tried to be a good album, and the freedom that this bought them allowed them to grow ambitious again for the next release in Lifted with more people willing to give it a shot. This album also provided one of the better Bright Eyes songs ever recorded in “June on the West Coast”, a song Oberst wrote when he was sixteen which seems to perfectly capture the mindset of a teenager who’s dealt with depression. He doesn’t make you depressed, in fact it’s a very pretty song, but the general indifferences and assumptions that are made within it allow it to progress effortlessly. It’s not the best Bright Eyes album, but it’s a damn good one where Oberst is still developing as an artist.
Track Picks: June on the West Coast, If Winter Ends, Pull My Hair