Musical Dialogues: Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst and Søren Kierkegaard

Elliot Smith's influence on Nebraskan singer-songwriter Conor Oberst is well acknowledged. The mythical figure of the lonely heroin addict, who committed suicide in 2003, has had a lasting effect on Oberst - both inspiring and destructive in equal measure. The Smith/Kierkegaard connection is perhaps even clearer. Smith’s second album, ‘Either/Or’, takes its name from the philosopher’s first published work, translating Kierkegaard’s exploration of two opposing ways of life into the context of drug and alcohol abuse in 90s America: it embodies that tension between an ‘aesthetic’ life, which seeks immediate external pleasures and avoids commitment, and an 'ethical' life, which appreciates the importance of internal reflection, and strives to take control of development into a better human being.

Photo Credit: Camilla Faurholdt-Löfvall via Flickr

    Kierkegaard's later and most famous book, ‘Fear and Trembling’, plays an equally important part in Oberst's band Bright Eyes' first really mature album, 'I'm Wide Awake It's Morning'. The title of its first track, ‘At the Bottom of Everything’, is a quote taken directly from the book: 'If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only [...] an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness [...] what would life be but despair?' This might be paraphrased into a struggle with nihilism implicit in secular modern life. What is most interesting, though, is how both musicians transcend the Kierkegaardian thought - which is their starting point – and the way in which, for Oberst, the figure of Smith helps him to do this.        

    The first half of Kierkegaard's ‘Fear and Trembling’ centres on a hypothetical aesthete, and Smith's album follows a similar structure: its first four tracks addressing a figure whose hedonism, selfishness and self-imposed isolation lead ultimately to despair. 'You can do what you want to whenever you want to / You can do what you want to, there's no-one to stop you', goes the chorus of 'Ballad of Big Nothing'. In 'Between the Bars', a whiskey bottle delivers a haunting serenade: 'Drink up one more time / And I'll make you mine / Keep you apart / Deep in my heart / Separate from the rest / Where I like you the best'. This figure's freedom is a curse leaving the speaker alone and at the mercy of their addiction. Their power is totally undermined in each song by its cost: the 'either' is a 'big nothing' both emotionally and existentially. 

    The final track, 'Say Yes', offers an alternative: 'I'm in love with the world / through the eyes of a girl / who's still around the morning after. / We broke up a month ago / and I grew up, I didn't know / I'd be around the morning after'. Maybe it is 'my life', maybe I can 'do what I want to whenever I want to'; but to be 'in love with the world', I have to look through the eyes of someone else; I need, not estrangement, but a real, open engagement with another: to see through 'the eyes of a girl / Who's still around the morning after' the cocaine binge. 'They want you or they don't / Say yes': the 'morning after' is a time of complete vulnerability to the will of another, and it is in this space where true happiness is found.  

    In 'Fear and Trembling', Kierkegaard outlines how 'ethical' life is a means to an end; it leads to the 'religious' life, which is accessed by a suspension of the ethical. He compares this to God's instruction to Abraham that he must sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham's faith entails his complete and agonizing abandoning of ethics at the will of God, and the acceptance of the absurd contradiction of God's will. 'IWAIM's first track begins with an anecdote about a plane crash which is actually a surprise birthday party. It's final chorus ends: 'Oh my morning's coming back / The whole world's waking up / All the city buses swimming past / I'm happy just because / I found out I am really no-one.' Elliott's happiness in abandonment to the other is raised to eschatological proportions; Oberst finds joy in the face of death, abandoned to the will of God, and accepting the obliteration of the ego: 'I am really no-one'.

Photo Credit: mikeeliza via Flickr

    But this revelation takes a Herculean effort to grasp. In the meantime, he is burdened with an ego, and surrounded by aesthetes like those in 'Either/Or'; like the destructive, Smith-like figure in 'Poison Oak' who 'wrote bad checks just to fill his arm'.  This song ends with Oberst 'drunk as hell / On a piano bench / And when I press the keys / It all gets reversed / The sound of loneliness / Makes me happier'. This is the abandoning of logic outlined by Kierkegaard: the absurd truth that absolute despair can lead to, and be inseparable from, absolute joy allows the transcending of the Either/Or binary in the album's conclusion. 'Road to Joy', which quotes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, illustrates the movement from aesthetic to ethical to religious; an ecstatic motion in which the ego is all but obliterated: 'Well I could have been a famous singer / If I had someone else's voice / But failure's always sounded better / Let's f**k it up boys, make some noise'. 

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