Conor Oberst – Barbican, London 04/02/13

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“This next song is a nostalgic song,” Bright Eyes singer and former bright young hope Conor Oberst says, introducing the fifth song in to his first solo set round these parts for a good few years, as the photo pass-clad select make their way to find their allotted seats. “Just,” he continues, “nostalgia for the future.”

It’s a strange premise, this slightly off-the-cuff remark, but something a little applicable to the night’s events; an evening with a setlist resembling a scattered covering of over a decade-long back-catalogue not to mention many side-project and one-time ventures (“I know what you’re all thinking: how many bands does this guy have?” Oberst quips as he introduces a rare Monsters of Folk number). Looking about the crowd, if only it were lit enough to enable this, would probably show a wide range of ages, not anywhere near as budding as you might have expected, say, five years back.

Such as with the last Bright Eyes tour, a main draw for many is this notion of nostalgia – post-teens trying to regain their youthful vigour of yore – even though on that tour, the band’s supporting album (The People’s Key, a record all about futurism and spirituality that Oberst himself tonight says that “nobody understood, but in the future they will”) was slightly more deserving than that gives it.

But while there’s much to get excited about in terms of looking back this evening – a surprisingly absorbing acoustic set which even injects the now-obligatory rendition of ‘First Day Of My Life’ with a fresh burst of life – there’s nonetheless a question raised around the new material on show. This doesn’t mean that the newer tracks are without merit. The saccharine but not entirely sickly sentiment of ‘You Are Your Mother’s Child’ (a song Oberst dedicates to “all the dirtbags I know that are having children and trying not to be dirtbags anymore”) rivals the more delicate moments of Noise Floor’s latter half. Meanwhile, another premiered cut, ‘Night At Lake Unknown’, sounds akin to the singer’s first solo record, an oft-looked gem in itself.

Instead, what puzzles is the stationary figure that Oberst cuts, quite alike the speaker in set-closer ‘Waste of Paint’ who heads “down by the train’s depot” to “sit and watch the people there”. Here, on stage, however, Oberst at times seems like a man amidst an outer-body experience of his own legacy. His mid-set crowd interaction is interspersed with introspective musings on growing old, his increasing bouts of insomnia, the futility of music journalism (sorry, Conor!) and, repeatedly, whether or not he’s boring the audience with his lullaby-like song choices. He even changes a lyric of a song (again in ‘Waste of Paint’) to reference himself as some sort of meta-therapy (“No, I’m a student of medicine, a brother of a folk singer, you don’t understand”).

Likewise, Oberst’s new material seems in such uncertain flux, with no key theme or thread tying them all together. They, instead, seem like distinctly different paths which Oberst may choose to pursue next, but none of them quite standing out as the obvious candidate. It’s hard to predict from each of them what’s left to come from the musician, now with well over 20 releases to his name.

But as the set follows ‘Shell Games’ with ‘Lua’ and into ‘Map of the World’, it becomes apparent that diversity was Oberst’s strength all along. Just go to see his post-hardcore band Desaparecidos in the capital next week (although Oberst, much to his PR’s dismay, isn’t quite sure what day it’s on) to realise that. Flowing from the Americana-tinged ‘Classic Cars’, a song about country singers and wise older women, to the string-laden ‘Arienette’ and mystic ‘Cape Canaveral’; the set offers a enviable reminder of how many twists and turns Oberst has managed so far.

And as he enters the crowd for some assistance on backing locals for ‘Laura Laurent’, handing the microphone over to a slightly rotund man who “looked like he packed a good voice in him”, or while he almost shreds his guitar and/or fingers in the chaotic close of ‘Waste Of Paint’, it becomes clear that Oberst still has his heart in this, which is why everyone here tonight fell in love with him in the first place. Now they just need another album to repay their abiding, unguided belief.

Photograph by Howard Melnyczuk