Musical Analysis: Bright Eyes – Landlocked Blues

On March 9, 2012

To many, Bright Eye’s frontman Conor Oberst can be a bit much to take; his tendency to play on people’s emotions with his deeply graphic and descriptive writing can make the listening experience uncomfortable. However, others find his writing full of contextual meaning. He has become popular with liberal youth due to anti-war rhetoric mixed with complex love songs, songs of tragedy and some of sullen loneliness.

Although many of Oberst’s tracks are viable for in-depth analysis, there is one particular track from I’m wide awake, it’s morning that I’ll address: the pro-love, anti-war homily “Landlocked Blues”.

The fundamental notion of being “landlocked” is to be surrounded by other countries; such notable regions are Afghanistan and almost Iraq (one water stream from the gulf stops this classification being official). The idea of being landlocked may also be metaphorical, as Oberst is surrounded by parallel complexities of love and war from which he wants to find an escape.

The song opens with no intro part and begins with the first line and a simple acoustic guitar part. The production is simple, and the tone is subtle from the outset. A 3/4 time signature waltzes the listener gently into a peaceful opening.

“If you walk away, I’ll walk away…”

The song opens with a resolution for peace: an amicable parting of ways and a plan for future avoidance. It sets a tone from the outset that rational (yet possibly naive) logic could lead to a solution and therefore peace. Conflict becomes the ongoing theme for the song, and so instantly a commentary on war begins. Bright Eyes have been quite open in their anti-war sentiment, so the subject is not surprising. However, it is the personal approach to political ideas of war, negotiations and ceasefire which humanizes the situation and causes the song to resonate with the listener. 

“And the future hangs over our heads”

 Oberst’s next tactic is to create a sense of involvement between himself and the listener. Instead of a personal rhetoric, the inclusive style helps to connect personal storytelling with an overhanging situation of war. The metaphorical ‘rain’ that surrounds us is another part of the rhetoric, added to create a sense of how the actions of war cause a reaction of events.

The introduction of Emmy Lou Harris’s harmonic part moves the song from its gentle, lonely tone. Her addition helps the undertone of relationships and love to continue alongside the themes of war.

It is the playful switching between the microcosm and macrocosm which helps to create a stronger link between himself, the listener and the global politics of the metatextual subject matter. The song continues to build through scenes of conflict, creating a parallel between a child’s game of using sticks as guns and the previous (and latter) idea of walking away from confrontation. 

Three verses return to the notion of relationships and their complexity before returning back to the war narrative, creatively utilizing a love scene to intertwine the subjects:

We made love on the living room floor

With the noise in the background of a televised war

And in the deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say

“If we walk away, they’ll walk away”

The song begins to gain a more aggressive pace, fully returning to and immersing the listener into the rhetoric. A middle 8 section of a “battle-charge” like horn section pulls the listener further into the scene, cleverly constructed to add resonance to the war theme. This peak of anger, aggression and noise settles back down and returns to Oberst’s initial loneliness and feelings of complete disenfranchisement from his own country, as he states “I feel more like a stranger each time I come home”. 

The song finishes with Oberst taking the idea of walking away slightly more literally; the frustrations of war, and possibly of love, are something he wants an escape from – although he has no idea where that is: 

“So I’m up at dawn

Putting on my shoes

I just want to make a clean escape

I’m leaving but I don’t know where to”

Bright Eyes and the Emo culture

Despite the musical talent and songwriting ability Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes bring, there is a tendency to oversensitise subjects, creating deep landscapes of emotional complexity whilst using everyday scenes and objects to humanise them. Their music has been heavily linked to the Emo culture and has sometimes unfairly been stereotyped as dark, depressive, doom and gloom pandering to a liberal youth. 

That said, Oberst is also seen as someone not afraid of shying away from sex, politics, religion and death, and has always been someone to write from many of his own personal experiences. Recording from the age of 13, he has become heavily engaged with his own descriptive narrative of how he sees the world – both happy and sad. Probably one of the most heartwarming songs I know – “First day of my life” – exists on the same album as “Landlocked Blues”. It’s another emotionally riddled song but completely out of phase with the depressing character of this one. Maybe not all things are dark and pesimistic in Oberst’s world. 

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