Introspection has never been one of rock’s great spectator sports, but there are a handful of performers who’ve proved capable of eliciting rapt attention despite — or perhaps because of — their attempts to totally disappear.
Conor Oberst, the 22-year-old Omaha wunderkind who records under the moniker Bright Eyes, is such a character. His addled orchestral folk would seem best suited for solitary bedroom listening, but the packed house at this Gotham gig — not to mention the devotees that propelled Bright Eyes’ new Saddle Creek album “The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” past many better-promoted discs in its first weeks of release — would beg to differ.
There are those who’d lump Bright Eyes in with the so-called emo movement, but rather than mimic that genre’s pattern of sound and fury signifying nothing, Oberst and company prefer to whisper and coo. The deceptive tranquility of songs, like the swooning opener “False Advertising,” actually amplifies the passion that Oberst pours into lyrics like “fuck my face/fuck my name/they’re false advertisements for a soul I don’t have.”
While his lyrics are as sharp as can be, Oberst does his best to keep himself, and his melodies, in soft focus. Guitars are used, when they’re used at all, as underpinning for more unconventional lead instruments like the trumpet and vibraphone that buoyed a loping “Method Acting” or the flute/viola tandem that wound its way through “Man and Wife,” a shuddering dirge that wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”
Oberst generally sounds more resigned than bitter, though, particularly when he shelves his more broadly painted visions of the apocalypse in favor of taut, personal missives, like the melancholy neo-soul anecdote “Neely O’Hara.”
Although the bulk of the 90-minute set was given over to dark, raw imagery, Oberst ultimately offered a catharsis — and more importantly, a narrow-but-attainable window of redemption.
Fellow Nebraskan M. Ward, who opened, and played some songs with Bright Eyes, shares considerable common ground with Oberst. He’s more of a folk traditionalist in the John Fahey mode, but he demonstrated broad enough scope to reconcile covering Scott Joplin and reworking David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” as a medieval ballad.
Bright Eyes and M. Ward play Los Angeles’ El Rey Theater Oct. 10 and 11.