Bright Eyes

Noise Floor (Rarities 1998-2005) Comp

(Saddle Creek; 2006)

By Alan Baban | 20 October 2006

So, ok, I was the CMG staffer who dropped a best-of-year on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (2005) back when Pluto was still a planet. And I still think Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005) is good. You could say I’m not the best person to ask for an objective review of Noise Floor, an odds and sods compilation from the latter half of his career, but not even I could stomach last year’s absolutely unnecessary and inconsequential live document, Motion Sickness. Which, rather than highlighting the incisive lyrical swerves and melodic about-turns of Bright Eyes’ best material in years, managed to embellish his songs in a puffer jacket of self-pastiche, ditching the characteristic honesty for a set tailored towards the expectations of a paying audience.

Sure, he’s never attempted to eke out a new niche into flatulent rap skits and self-annihilating irony, but there’s no question of the steady development of Oberst as artist, from his adolescent hand paintings on Letting Off the Happiness (1998) to his more sophisticated and refined approach to songwriting on later records like Lifted (2002), where his previously unfocused and distended emoting found itself a framework on which to function efficiently. As Noise Floor is arranged non-chronologically, it obfuscates this artistic development. But beyond the poor sequencing, there is another issue: despite its opulent packaging, the material here isn’t even commercial enough to avoid alienating those lulled by the Starbucks stutter of “First Day of My Life.” In short, the package will prove pointless as anything other than detrital memorabilia to the diehards who probably own all of these tracks on previously released EPs anyway.

It isn’t an entire wash. The material here is intermittently interesting for a variety of reasons, whether it be “I Will be Grateful for this Day’s” embryonic foray into electro-indie, or the acapella abortion of “Mirrors and Fevers,” a self-consciously awful collage experiment. But the songwriting on whole, a few tracks excepted, bears little fruit. Those real oddities, though surrounded by mediocrity, give periodic utterance to Oberst’s talents. His vocal delivery on a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town” skillfully treads a tightrope between subdued, subtle inflections and the melodramatic hiccups that come to pockmark the bloated sentimentality of “The Vanishing Act,” where four-track hisses and syllable-chewing lyrics obscure a more intimate take on the affecting burlesque later heard on “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.”

But where the re-recorded version of “Happy Birthday to Me” ebulliently flashes unfalteringly executed gothic melodicisms, meandering the short stops and ebb/flow of the offhand countermelodies of Oberst’s acoustic, “I’ve Been Eating (for You)” eschews the counterbalance of direct emoting and shuffled melodic decks for a dirge of descending strums, dressed in “Probably the meanest song I ever wrote,” careless clichés (“you’re more of a basketball / boys just pass you around”) lost in a sea of egocentric solipsism. It’s the kind of track that gives Bright Eyes a bad name, hinting nothing at the universal meaningfulness of songs like “Lua” or “Poison Oak.”

And that may be the most frustrating thing about Noise Floor: it shows little of Oberst’s usual dramatic flair, which, more often than not, emerges here in a series of fleeting glimpses, marred by and buried under the folly of either exaggerated image consolidation or lazy writing. It will do nothing for his lampooned image as a bed-wetting swindler of callous sincerity, and is hopefully the last in a series of ineffectual catalogue releases before the next full length lands.