Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: Bright Eye’s Four Winds EP.
Anniversary Records: Bright Eyes – Four Winds EP
by Chad Jewett
For nearly the whole of the band’s run, each Bright Eyes album came with a matching EP — a prologue to accompany each full-length and a miniature statement-of-purpose for that year’s version of the always shape-shifting collective. Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning were preceded by the “Lua” and “Take It Easy/Love Nothing” maxi-singles, which gave nods to the respective electronic and rustic theses of those albums. Before Lifted there was There Is No Beginning To The Story, which forecasted the fevered wall-of-sound eclecticism of the LP that followed. These EPs would also frequently serve as catch-alls for the ideas that fell just outside the scope of the full-lengths they harkened to: the bouncy digital pop of “Loose Leaves”, for example, managed to hint at a more optimistic, freewheeling subplot lurking on the margins of the more haunted Lifted.
The same is true of Four Winds, the six-song release that dropped a month ahead of 2007’s Cassadaga LP. Like Cassadaga, some of Four Winds is given over to a certain stately, ornate version of alt-country, less the rebellious, ad-hoc roots music of Lifted and more the string-laden “balladeer” versions of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. “Countrypolitan” is the traditional term for this sort of thing – western songs draped in plush orchestration. But Four Winds also hinted at a woollier, wilder version of Cassadaga’s grandiose country rock. Indeed, it seemed to be a storehouse for how producer Mike Mogis might have arranged the album had he still been dipping into the more impressionistic, experimental aesthetic that defined Lifted and Digital Ash. When Lifted needed an orchestra, it meant figuring out who in Omaha could double and triple a clarinet part. Following the breakthrough success of Bright Eyes’ 2002-2005 period, the recording for Cassadaga needed no such improvising. They could afford the orchestra. Only in hindsight would it seem clear that Conor Oberst’s songs benefitted most when Oberst and Mogis had to scrape together limited resources to chase interesting sounds.
Thus Four Winds ends up being the end of an era for Bright Eyes, the last time where all involved seemed willing to let the staples and scotch tape show. The EP is noisier, stranger, more willing to entertain the eerie sounds and odd stylistic touches that lend it a personality that Cassadaga sometimes lacks. While a Cassadaga track like “Make A Plan To Love Me” found Mogis and Oberst overshooting their golden-age Motown runway (reportedly what they had in mind for the song) and landing square in the maudlin, mannered sounds that Motown actually offered an energetic alternative to, the creaky “Smoke Without Fire” benefits from the dust you can hear in the margins. Similarly, EP-closer “Tourist Trap,” with its high-lonesome echoes and the solitary rings of its percussion – which sounds, for all the world, like a set of tapping feet – seems to have a handle on making the song sound like its premise: a ballad about feeling isolated and adrift. “And the road finally gave me back / But I don’t think I’ll unpack / Because I’m not sure if I live here any more,” goes the song’s chorus, backed meaningfully by those ghostly footsteps. It’s an improvement over the empty bombast of Cassadaga lowlight “Middleman”, which reaches for the fervor of “Method Acting” but is built on much less solid foundation.
Equally striking is “Cartoon Blues”, a roiling, rumbling country-punk rave-up that is apocalyptic both in poetry (“And time ruined the world / Like a failed revolution / A tumor we could not remove / An old friend, a constant, the blues”) and sound. The song achieves what “Middleman” only reaches for, and does so by being more willing to warp itself into odd shapes. When the bottom falls out of the song’s bridge, leaving just Oberst’s voice, twisted and pulled into sonic taffy, the result is sublime and nightmarish, achieving the kind of biblical strangeness that seems to have been the chief goal of Cassadaga.
And while the main theme of Four Winds seems to be doomsday angst (“Four Winds”, “Smoke Without Fire”, “Tombstone Blues”) or withering isolation (“Tourist Trap”, “Stray Dog Freedom”), the EP’s best song bucks the trend, instead devoting its sound and sentiments to intimacy. By all appearances a eulogy for the late Elliott Smith (lines like “My friend you were the model / A priceless work of art / Boys would fashion their emotions / To the pattern of your heart” are uncanny) who had died two years earlier, “Reinvent The Wheel” is a guitar-pop song of the Ryan Adams/Gold variety, all effervescent piano and the golden buzz of a harmonica. When the strings swell in this one, they actually do follow the Motown playbook, showing up as moving wellsprings that dance in the song’s expansive bridge.
Conor Oberst had written several similarly moving, hopeful elegies to that point – “Easy/Lucky/Free”, “Light Pollution” and “Poison Oak” are all striking examples – but “Reinvent The Wheel” actually proved the apotheosis for a register that Oberst has attempted several times: a sort of joyful mourning that delivers its sadness in a Technicolor major key. A line like “And I know you’ll never come back now to the world where people are / Because you never understood what they loved you for” is positively gutting, made all the more poignant by the way the song then leaps into its bright, effusive main riff. Indeed, you could count on one hand the number of Bright Eyes songs that even attempt the kind of high-test pop that “Reinvent The Wheel” delivers (“Endless Entertainment, a swinging Cassadaga bonus track left off both LP and EP, comes close), even as it offers a funeral oration.
And it’s that complexity that makes Four Winds so striking in its best moments, and makes it such a complicated appendage to Cassadaga. There’s an imagined version of the latter — drawing from the former — that would likely be one of Bright Eyes’ 2 or 3 best albums. The best songs on Four Winds are less literal, less earnest in their need to telegraph the same emotions that Cassadaga was positively cinematic in delivering. The best love song on Four Winds sounds like it was recorded in a haunted house, offering the kind of nuance for which Bright Eyes never got enough credit. Critics were always too distracted by Oberst’s emoting to grasp the layers underneath. Four Winds, at its best, was one of the most balanced records Bright Eyes would release, a moment of maturity for Oberst that nevertheless rang with the outsider exuberance that made him special in the first place.