Sunday, May 29, 2011

Themes in Conor Oberst's lyrics (Part Three)

A theme across some of Conor Oberst's finest songs is a struggle with alcohol. Potentially harmless social agent and relaxant or aid to self-destruction and isolation? There exists a complicated relationship between the narrator and alcohol.

"Hit the Switch" is a song devoted entirely to the topic, mapping out the conflict that is felt. He contemplates quitting drinking, lamenting another morning spent in the grips of a debilitating hangover during which he feels like a hypocrite for continuing to inflict damage upon himself. "Lua" contains similar sentiment: "What is simple in the moonlight now is so complicated."

In "Hit the Switch," he also addresses the juxtaposition of friends out socializing over drinks with the narrator's own removed frame of mind: "I'm completely alone at a table of friends / I feel nothing for them / I feel nothing / Nothing" and "I'll call you eventually, when I want to talk / Until then you're invisible." The use of alcohol is not aiding him with his social interactions, but is in effect impeding them.

One reason why it is such a well crafted song is because the switch to which the title refers has him vacillating from beginning to end of narrative. Early on he talks about a switch getting hit and that things stop making sense, with his essential self getting lost in the shuffle. At the end of the song he says that when night descends, "It all starts making sense / There is no right way or wrong way, you just have to live / And so I do what I do, and at least I exist / What could mean more than this?" That mindset gets the last word, which connotes the cycle.

On the one hand, the narrator is continuing to exist, but on the other hand, living with an alcohol problem may feel like a cheated existence. "It's not something I would recommend," he cautions in "Lua," "but it is one way to live." In "Something Vague," he writes, "You see your breath in the air as you climb up the stairs / To that coffin you call your apartment / And you sink in your chair, brush the snow from your hair / And drink the cold away / And you're not really sure what you're doing this for / But you need something to fill up the days / A few more hours."

Morbid thoughts are woven into this lyrical theme. "Milk Thistle" (which is used to treat alcohol-inflicted liver damage) is a song about dying: "I keep death on my mind / Like a heavy crown / If I go to heaven / I'll be bored as hell." In "Hit the Switch," he refers to recurrent nightmares: "I have some where I die / I have some where we all die." In "Lua," he writes, "We might die from medication but we sure killed all the pain."

Conor Oberst is known for his confessional lyrics, and this theme across a number of his songs is a prime example. It is admirable that he would expose such a struggle and probe it to the extent that he does. He does not glamorize or gloss over the topic at all, either--rather, he strips it bare.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It's Star Wars Day!

May the fourth be with you--it's Star Wars Day! It's funny because I have actually been making my way again through the series on DVD (first the original trilogy; now I'm on to the prequels). My favorite would have to be Return of the Jedi. There are a lot of good lines in that movie, many of them said by the macho and sarcastic Han Solo. A few favorites:

Luke Skywalker: "Just relax and stick close to Chewy. I've taken care of everything."
Han Solo: "Oh. Great."

Luke: "Quiet, there may be more of them out there."
Han: "Hey. It's me."

C3PO: "They believe I'm some sort of god."
Han: "Well, why don't you use your divine influence and get us out of this?"

Princess Leia: "It only takes one to sound the alarm."
Han: "Then we'll do it real quiet-like."

The increasingly gleeful emperor when he has Luke in his clutches: "Oh, I'm afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive." (This is a fun line to do an impression of!)

Of course, Star Wars also has a bunch of other things going for it: the epic storyline; great characters, including strong female leads (Padme Amidala and Princess Leia); the score; cool special effects; impressive costumes; and edge-of-your-seat battle scenes. It also touches on interesting philosophical points, which are often articulated by Jedi Master Yoda:

"Do or do not. There is no try."

"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

"Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is."

"The fear of losing is a path to the dark side."