Monday, April 06, 2009

Week 45: "Light Pollution" by Bright Eyes

Way back in week one I wrote about the Bright Eyes’ song “Road to Joy.” That song came from their album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, which was released in early 2005 concurrently with a second album entitled Digital Ash in Digital Urn.

The two albums could not be more different. I’m Wide Awake… is an album of acoustic folk-rock songs whereas Digital Ash… is a studio album that is highly digitized, synthesized, and electronic. By releasing these two albums simultaneously, Bright Eyes showcased their musical versatility. My favorite track on Digital Ash… is the song “Light Pollution.” While this song is perhaps the least “digital” song on the album, I find it compelling for a several reasons.

Lyrically, “Light Pollution” is a narrative song, in which the singer tells us the story of the death of his friend. Connor Oberst does not give us the actual name of his friend. Instead he dubs him, “John A. Hobson” after an obscure Marxist intellectual. Oberst’s friend, the story tell us, has a deep influence on Oberst, exposing him to both social and economic criticism as well as to music and literature that contain the spirit of resistance. The song also describes Hobson’s struggles to live with authenticity and integrity in a social context to which he is ideologically opposed.

After explaining their relationship the song switches and gives an account of Hobson’s final moments. Hobson jumps in his car and begins driving. (It is at this point that the tempo begins to accelerate as the music develops in intensity and tension.) First, Hobson passes a baseball game where there are anthems, flags, and billboards. He continues to drive, “Out past that center mall / Out past that sickening sprawl / Out past that fenced in gold.”

It is at this point that he loses control of his car, crashes it, and dies. The final lyrics of the song are, “But I bet the stars seemed so close at the end.”

First, the song is clearly idealistic and ideological and angst-ridden, just as any great rock song should be. But, more than this, the song poses a number of interpretive possibilities. First of all, there isn’t the insinuation that Hobson’s death is tragic. Rather, it is presented as liberating. If we interpret the line about “fenced in gold” to refer to the cornfields outside of Omaha, we come to understand Hobson as an escaping refugee, perhaps even a martyr driven to his own oblivion.

The title of the song, “Light Pollution” also adds a bit of meaning to the song. Within this understanding of the song, Hobson is one who sees things clearly. The light pollution of the lights of the baseball field, the mall, and the sprawl obscure the ability to see. It is only as he heads out of town that his vision is enlarged. As he escapes the light pollution the stars seem so close.

Unfortunately, there is not a good version of this song on YouTube, only a version of the song with pictures of the band. However, here is a link to the music video for the second best song on the album, “Lucky / Easy / Free.” If you watch this video, let me know what you think: Is Connor Oberst actually writing backwards or has the music video been flipped so that we are given the impression that he is?