Monday, August 8, 2011

August 8 - The Center of the World; An Attempt to Tip the Scales

I've been having really intense reactions to music lately, so it's no surprise that Conor Oberst's heartwrenching lyrics have been resonating stronger than ever. Listening to music during emotionally turbulent times is an interesting experience; sure, there are always moments when you're unhappy, happy, indifferent, etc., but when you have a specific reason for those feelings--a concrete lens/context to hear music through--your senses become heightened in new ways. This is how you can gain different insights to songs you may have heard hundreds of times, (re)discovering how subjective music really is. For example, I never really cared for Cursive's "A Red So Deep" until I heard it while struggling to comprehend someone's infidelity; suddenly the lyrics cut like daggers, as Kasher vindictively whispers:

Are you satisfied tonight, oh, trader's wife?
Does he neglect you?
Crawling bar stools and touching the girls
As you wash their smell from his clothes.

I still have a hard time listening to the song; it's a permanent part of my history, capturing a time when I was really down on the world. Still, though, experiences like this show how magical music can be: as the listener matures, sounds/words/meanings illuminate themselves in new ways. Just like literature, good music isn't obvious; it takes an active listener to reap all of a song's benefits, even if the "benefit" is heartache. Which leads me to Bright Eyes.

Fevers and Mirrors is the perfect album for the brooding adolescent, probably because it was made by a brooding adolescent. Ironically, through my teens I never had as strong of a connection with Fevers as I had with Oberst's other works (Digital Ash and I'm Wide Awake, especially). But during a long car ride at night, where I futilely attempted to avoid mopey music, Fevers lured me with its misery.

Regardless of the context, "The Center of the World" always hits me like a ton of bricks. To be honest, I never really took the time to interpret the song, but I've always felt startled when Oberst wails, "Two pills just weren't enough /The alarm clock's going off / but you're not waking up. /This isn't happening, happening, happening, / happening, happening. It is." The narrative describes a man in love with a hardened woman, symbolized by a statue, whose life is mundane ("you drive home to your place / from that job that makes you sleep"), full of despair ("the thoughts that keep you awake"), and ultimately intolerable, resulting in her overdose.

Like much of Oberst's early work, the song fixates on drugs leading to a figurative or literal death; here Oberst hovers over the loved one's corpse, screaming incredulously that this "isn't happening," only to wail in a chilling realization that "it is." The alarm clock ringing to an unmoving body paints a harrowing image, one that seems so real and possibly so imminent for anyone that knows someone struggling with drugs. Whereas a song like "A Line Allows Progress, A Circle Does Not" details the sordid life of a drug addict, "Center" emphasizes the persons affected by the user's addiction, expressing the rage and sorrow when a beloved one dies from a preventable death.

However, "An Attempt to Tip the Scales" might be the most painful song I can listen to right now, as Oberst sings unfortunately relevant lyrics:

So we trade liquor for blood in an attempt to tip the scales.
I think you lost what you loved in that mess of details.
They seemed so important at the time but now you can't even recall
Any of the names, faces, or lines; it's more the feeling of it all.

The song ends with a message of hope--"so close to dying that I finally can start living"--and a beautiful collage of keys and strings, something to cling to when everything seems like it's falling apart.

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