Desaparecidos were not the first musical enterprise for Conor Oberst. By the time the bombastic post-hardcore outfit played its first show in 2001, the Nebraskan songwriter had already released three solo cassettes and three LPs as Bright Eyes, the feverish and emotional folk project that would catapult him to the pinnacle of indie stardom. But Desaparecidos’ mix of violent emotions and unflinching political tirades allowed Oberst to solidify a brash songwriting voice that would make him simultaneously one of the most exciting and frustrating artists of the last decade. Today, with the band reunited and attempting to recapture its righteous vigor, their output highlights the failures of Oberst’s recent works.
With their 2002 album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, Desaparecidos united the brutal precision and textural acumen of bands like At the Drive-In with explosive emotions and an aggressive agenda. Keying on frequent loud-to-soft dynamic shifts, the music saw Oberst perfect his oft-copied vocal delivery, which grows from a Dylan-esque quiver to a nasal snarl during his more agitated moments.
Songs like “The Happiest Place on Earth” find Oberst coming into his own. “I want to pledge allegiance to the country where I live,” he whispers over nervy guitar prickles. “I don't want to be ashamed to be American.” It’s an early instance of his pointed dissatisfaction with this country’s government, made most famous on Bright Eyes’ Bush-bashing “When the President Talks to God.” As the guitars ramp up into an assault of fuzz, Oberst comes unhinged, pushing his vocal chords to the limit as he rants about public schools that are no more than halfway houses and suburban neighborhoods enclosed in barbed wire. It's an arresting and confrontational diatribe that’s easy to hate, but whatever reaction you have, it absolutely forces you to feel something.
Lifted and, to a lesser degree, 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning are similarly in-your-face. On these albums, Oberst inhabits Bright Eyes’ folk-rock shambles with mad-eyed energy, raving through verbose verses flush with daring and divisive images. The back-and-forth sexual depravity of Lifted’s “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” is a good example, as Oberst moans with dispassion about sex addicts out for a quick fix, describing their actions with coldly vivid detail.
But starting with the 2007 Bright Eyes effort Cassadaga and carrying on into a pair of solo outings recorded with his Mystic Valley Band, Oberst gave into precise and pretty folk-rock impulses and songs that lack the emotional immediacy of his earlier material. His more personal odes have become inscrutable mazes of too-clever wordplay. His political material has become riddled with cliches, the work of an activist on autopilot. The People’s Key, his 2011 return to Bright Eyes, attempts to reclaim his old venom, but the barbs feel forced. “Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar,” he offers weakly on “Shell Games,” “I'm still angry with no reason to be.”
These days, it’s hard to disagree with Oberst’s self-assessment. The four songs Desaparecidos have released since reuniting last year lack the genuine intensity of their early works. “Now we’re taking it back for the greater good, goddamn Robin Hoods!” Oberst sings on “The Left is Right,” his shouts bolstered by anthemic guitar gauze. While his most affecting works seethe with self-doubt, his cries here resound with self-righteous confidence, as though he actually sees himself as some kind of savior. That kind of pretension certainly demands a reaction, but for most, it’s unlikely to be positive.
Desaparecidos play Cat's Cradle Sunday, Feb. 17, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20-$23, and Joyce Manor opens.