Conor Oberst was alternately blessed and plagued with “next Dylan” status at a very young age. His promising talent in the folky singer-songwriter genre came at a time when rock ’n’ roll was still battling rap-rock. Oberst, who comes to the Showbox at the Market Sept. 30, gave thirsty music critics and fans an excuse to wax nostalgic.
David Samuels recently wrote in the cultural criticism journal n+1 that Mick Jagger didn’t become the rock ’n’ roll archetype known as Mick Jagger by himself: the press, fans and record company largesse were co-creators as well. In that regard, Oberst didn’t become the entitled, empty pair of skinny jeans that he is all by his lonesome. Like NFL quarterbacks who spend every moment of their lives coddled after the discovery of their spiral, Oberst spent his formative years being told that he was a genius. Along the way, he started to believe the notion, and a reverent audience let him get away with it.
Since he peppers his songs with armchair political references and surface-level understandings of inequality, he’s often considered to be a politically enlightened songwriter. Such characterizations are lazy and reduce the art to the level of a campaign applause line (it’s also not something I’ve been entirely innocent of). The crux of the problem is that songwriters like to have it both ways: they don’t have to have any healthy understanding of a populist message to weave references into song, and if they’re ever called on it, they can punt: I don’t have to give up my rights as a citizen just because I write songs.
Which is exactly how Oberst responded when questioned about inflammatory comments made from the stage at Sasquatch! 2011 about Osama bin Laden (“I don’t think it’s that remarkable to shoot an old man in the head in his bedroom.”). And he couldn’t see the hypocrisy in decrying U.S. policies for causing “people to hate us around the world,” and then singing a song that references the burning of the Quran. Oberst declined to comment for this article.
His new album, “Upside Down Mountain,” is a pleasant rocker. Mercifully, it’s not awash in overt political references, but there is a delightful tune, “Kick,” in which he imagines the life of RFK’s granddaughter Kathleen Kennedy. In the opening track, “Time Forgot,” Oberst sings: “Polished my shoes/I bought a brand new hat/Moved to a town that time forgot/Where I don’t have to shave or be approachable,” which could be interpreted as an indictment of the current infatuation of all things olde tyme. Which, for a Seattle audience, is probably more offensive than armchair pacifism.
7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 30, at Showbox at the Market, 1426 First Ave., Seattle; $29.50 advance tickets, $35 at the door (206-628-3151 or showboxpresents.com).
Chris Kornelis is a Seattle-based writer and editor.