Once upon a time, I was a music guy. Not a musician, as I have little talent when it comes to playing any sort of instrument, but a behind-the-scenes guy who went to a lot of shows, wrote about a lot of albums and ran a website that was known by a few people here and there throughout the world. I started writing about punk music back in the late 1990's and gradually grew out of that over the course of a few years, settling into a Nebraska-centric look at all sorts of independent music and booking more small shows than I care to count.
My involvement in the music scene coincided with the rise of Omaha's Saddle Creek Records. For the unfamiliar, Saddle Creek started as a group of friends teaming up to release records of their own, artists including Cursive, the Faint and Bright Eyes. I was never anywhere near being part of that inner circle but it was fun to experience their success and music firsthand during that time period. Omaha was on the pages of Rolling Stone and the N.Y. Times and it seemed like people were actually thinking of this place as something more than just flyover country.
As with anything worth experiencing, the moment passed and time marched on. The concerts found bigger, better venues and the feeling of the music began to change. The sense of urgency and raw emotion evolved into maturity and better craft. To put it bluntly, we grew up.
Conor Oberst, the 30-something guy behind Bright Eyes, just released a solo album in May entitled "Upside Down Mountain." Listening to the record for the first time, I was struck at how very different his music has become since the early days of Bright Eyes back in the late 1990's. At that time, it would have been near impossible to imagine that this often off-key, over-emotional voice would ever translate into any sort of adulthood. But remarkably, it has, with Oberst using some of his unusual vocal characteristics to effectively portray his unique songwriting. Now he's receiving comparisons to songwriters like Paul Simon and writing great hooks that are no-less memorable (yet far less over-dramatic) than his earlier work.
I'm very nearly the same age as Oberst, although my "career" as a photographer does not extend back into my early teen years like his does. My most embarrassing moments are largely forgotten on websites long since deleted and are not shared on torrent sites all over the internet. But I feel a kinship with his career, finding a way to remain relevant and creatively vibrant even as his music matures and evolves.
After finishing my ninety-three project, I made a conscious effort to move past some of the quirky trappings of my earlier photographs, and try to develop a documentary style with more depth and the ability to accurately portray the quiet as well as the obvious. (Think less Martin Parr and more Walker Evans.) All of this takes time and is still an on-going process, but I feel like I've reached what one might consider a much more mature phase in my work. It's about moving forward, accurately reflecting the changes in self and interest, and hopefully continuing to develop as I get older.
Getting older was something I never used to think much about. I just sort of avoided the issue, instead floundering in a sort of perpetual 20-something haze that left me unable to find the kind of peace that stability can bring. While I can't speak for Mr. Oberst, I'd like to think we're similar in this way, that Upside Down Mountain is a record made by someone who is cool with where his life is headed and has learned from all the youthful drama of a decade or more ago.
So.. Here's to all the artists and musicians who don't stop at 22 and continue to attempt to find meaning and freely express it in their work. Remember the past but don't repeat it.