Friday, November 20, 2015

A Crack in Everything: Fevers and Mirrors

It's the long-overdue return of A Crack in Everything! This is the part of the show where I spit on the albums I love and pretend to think them anything other than great. Click here to see which albums I've spat on in the past.

We can all agree that Fevers & Mirrors is the best Bright Eyes album, right?  Or, okay, Lifted is the "best" one, but Fevers is our favourite, the one we all secretly prefer in spite of the fact that Lifted and maybe even I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning are objectively better records. I may be a little biased because Fevers & Mirrors was the first Bright Eyes CD I owned, but I suspect that most other fans share that personal, 'but this is my Bright Eyes album' sense of attachment regardless of their own entry points.

It seems kind of dumb to give Fevers & Mirrors the ACiE treatment; I mean, of *course* it's not perfect, the flaws are the whole point. To iron out the musical creases and Polyfilla the cracks in Conor Oberst's voice would be to fundamentally alter the very heart of the Fevers & Mirrors experience, and for the worse; the fragility, the confusion, and the raw shakiness are all crucial components of the LP, and major factors in my own enjoyment thereof.

So, like my write-up of Neutral Milk Hotel's winningly nasal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, this post will ignore the flaws and faults that I consider to be integral parts of the album's appeal. However, there are still a few improvements that I feel could stand to be made to Fevers & Mirrors, so let's dive in and, um, reflect on those things.

We'll start, appropriately enough, at the beginning.

Now, I respect - appreciate, even - Conor Oberst's decision to start every Bright Eyes album with several minutes of spoken word and/or ambient noise to put off casual listeners. It's an odd choice, but I understand why he does it, and it usually doesn't bother me that much. The one exception is A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever, and a Necklace from Fevers & Mirrors; I'm not sure why, but the sound of young children reading aloud really grates on me. I suppose I struggle with the clompy lack of nuance, and the fact that they usually sound like they don't understand a word they're saying. Not that I'm having a go at the little'un heard at the start of Fevers & Mirrors - he's only young, after all - but did Conor Oberst really have to make us listen to him?

Worse still, unlike most opening tracks in the Bright Eyes oeuvre (particularly Firewall and At the Bottom of Everything), the song that follows all that reading isn't even that good. It sets the tone well, I suppose, all despairing and dry as a desert, but Oberst is too close to the microphone (that's another thing that really bugs me - I hate  hearing every click and slurp that's happening inside someone's mouth) and by the end I'm usually just wishing that someone would fetch him a glass of water. I really, really like A Scale, a Mirror and Those Indifferent Clocks, but as I write this, I'm wondering if part of the reason I like it is because its arrival means that A Spindle... is finally out of the fucking way and we can get on with the album proper.

(I realise this is all slightly rich coming from someone who, earlier this week, spent five paragraphs complaining about bands who start their albums with really strong, immediate songs, but still.)

After a few knockout tracks - The Calendar Hung Itself..., Something Vague - we hit another problem with The Movement of a Hand, which is merely okay. The Movement of a Hand is pretty enough, and it serves the album's sequencing well, serving as a much-needed moment of subdued respite after the frantic Calendar and the heart-in-mouth Something Vague. It's also great if you're playing the 'In My Pants' game, where you add the phrase 'in my pants' to the title of your favourite songs.

But, when all's said and done, F&M's second most delicate moment doesn't really do much more for me than its first. It's just some mid-paced album track that, sure, features some lovely singing from Conor Oberst, but frankly I'm not here to hear beautiful singing - I'm here to hear Oberst sing-shout until his stomach pops out of his mouth.

Which brings me to Arienette. I like Arienette a lot, but I'm always a little disappointed when the reprise ("Stay with me Arienette/Until the wolves are away") arrives and Oberst just sort of mumbles it instead of giving it the full-on shriek it clearly merits. Especially the second time around - give it some welly, man! You've spent the whole verse yelling, so why tone it back down right at the end?

Fortunately, there's no shortage of welly in the album's second half, which as far as I'm concerned is pretty much perfect. Okay, so the closing segment of The Center of the World (just after Oberst hollers "it is!") always sounded slightly too jolly to my ears, but other than that...yeah, perfect. Even the fake interview that separates the last two songs is fine by me; I've often been tempted to skip it, but I usually leave it because a) it's funny, b) it offers some interesting angles on the album's key themes, and c) A Song to Pass the Time sounds all the more gorgeous when you've taken the long way 'round.

Oh, and d) at least it's not that stupid kid from the first track again.

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