In the Fall of 2004, musical acts such as Bruce Springsteen, REM, The Dave Matthews Band, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne were a part of a highly partisan concert series held in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. (I’ll give you two guesses about which Presidential candidate they were supporting and the first guess doesn’t count.)
During the concert series, a relatively obscure band called Bright Eyes opened four shows for REM and Bruce Springsteen. Reportedly, a generational schism was evident at many of these shows. Young Bright Eyes fans were known to beg their parents to leave after Bright Eyes finished their opening set. They didn’t care to hear REM, who appealed to a Generation X demographic or Springsteen, who appealed to Baby Boomers.
The band Bright Eyes, based in Omaha, Nebraska, was formed in 1995 and fronted by then 15 year-old Conor Oberst. Oberst, born in 1980, was no newcomer to the music industry. At age 12 people were comparing his song-writing to Bob Dylan’s. At age 13 he released his first album and founded his own record company, Saddle Creek Records, which would go on to put out albums by bands like Rilo Kiley and The Faint. (From ’93-’96 he released three full length albums as Conor Oberst.) Bright Eyes has been releasing albums at a prolific rate since their debut album in 1998. In the past decade they’ve released seven full length albums as well as an album of B-sides, a live album, and a Christmas album.
“Road to Joy” is from the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, a folk-rock styled album that was released simultaneously in January, 2005 with a second, harder Bright Eyes album, Digital Ash in A Digital Urn, that was influenced by electronica. However, the version of “Road to Joy” I am going to describe is from their November, 2005 live album, Motion Sickness.
"Road to Joy" kicks off with a pounding bass drum, distorted guitar, and the squeal of a muted trumpet. Their playing has no discernible melody and the instruments seem disjointed. All of a sudden, an aggressive, upbeat version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” emerges from the chaos. The theme repeats and Oberst’s vocals join in the second time around. The song’s structure contains eight verses, each four lines long, and no chorus.
The first verse sets a dark mood: “The sun came up with no conclusions / Flowers sleeping in their beds / The city cemetery’s humming / I’m wide awake; it’s morning.” The second verse continues to establish the mood: “I have my drugs, I have my woman / they keep away my loneliness / my parents they have their religion / but sleep in separate houses.” Besides the obvious play on Marx’s opiate of the masses quote, the song has painted a picture of a world at sleep, figuratively if not literally, a world where our addictions, relationships, and belief structures keep us from realizing that the city cemetery is humming.
As the third verse begins, the drum roll of a militaristic-sounding snare drum is added to the tune. The third verse brings focus to what the singer is describing: “I read the body count out of the paper / and now it’s written all over my face / nobody ever plans to sleep out in the gutter / sometimes that’s just the most comfortable place.” Verbally, this verse is a mixed bag. The glorification of sleeping on the street is naïve and immature. At the same time, the image of newspaper ink imprinted across a person’s face is powerful, as is the link between poverty and feeling the effects of war.
However, it is the sixth verse of “Road to Joy” that is the most striking and disturbing. “So when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing / It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win / And no one’s sure how all of this got started / But we’re gonna make ‘em god-damn certain how it’s gonna end.” Exactly what to do with this verse has always posed a problem to me. For one thing, it is impossibly immoral so the temptation is to think that Oberst’s lyrics are tongue-in-cheek, that he is aping jingoism and poking fun at songs like those done by the likes of country-singer Toby Keith. However, I also think he may be making a point about apathy and how easy it is to go along with the ways of your government. Even so, these lyrics are decidedly troubling and maybe that is the point of them: to make us feel uncomfortable.
Following the seventh verse, the song makes space for a solo, though to call it a solo is largely imprecise. Rather, it is an a-rhythmic cacophony of distorted guitars, muted trumpet, and pounding drums. The sound is formless, intense, angry, and blaring. Into this chaos, Oberst inserts his own voice by literally screaming the first verse again at the top of his lungs. This time, the “I’m awake; it’s morning” has a different meaning. His outrage is based in awareness.
What I love most about this song is the willingness to transform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” into an angry, fast-paced song replete with a military snare-drum and heavily distorted instrumentation. The song leaves an impression that is hard to shake.
Here are some links to versions of "Road to Joy" on YouTube:
Live on the Craig Ferguson Show (with a smashed trumpet).
Live in NYC with a 20+ piece band.
Another version of the song.
A live version of the song performed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
[Other Bright Eyes songs worthy of mention are: “Method Acting” and “Waste of Paint” off the album Lifted...; “At the Bottom of Everything” and “Old Soul Song” off I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; “Easy / Lucky / Free” off Digital Ash in a Digital Urn; and, “I Must Belong Somewhere” and “Four Winds” off Cassadaga. I will discuss the Bright Eyes song “Light Pollution” later in this series.]