Desaparecidos - Electric Ballroom, Camden 11/02/13
The buzz before the show was palpable. For days beforehand social networks had been going crazy with who was or wasn't going, who needed a ticket and who had spares, who was meeting who and where.
Upon its release in 2002, Desaparecidos' one and only album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, captured the zeitgeist of what was wrong with the 21st century. Questions were being asked about the events of 9/11, the spectre of illegal war was looming, horror stories from third world sweatshops were trickling into the mainstream and the constant external pressure to buy more and be more felt like a form of psychological warfare waged by advertisers on the general populace. It was a time of widespread unease. The boom years of the 90s were turning into something much darker.
So with lines like "those assholes got their eighteen holes/ you should tell 'em to dig one more/ the dream is dead" or "I'm gonna start a factory the size of a country and teach them all to work for liberty" it felt like Conor Oberst was voicing the concerns of a generation, of politicised youth with a cynicism and energy that hadn't been heard in years. An intelligent, eloquent, political punk album for the 21st century. And then ten years of nothing. Oberst continued to churn out confessional Bright Eyes albums with the occasional pop at the Bush administration but nothing matched that same vitality. So to say people were excited would be an understatement.
Launching straight into new single 'The Left is Right' it was clear that the band still meant every note, hurling themselves around the stage as Oberst and bassist Matt Baum barked the lyrics out to the huddled masses who had waited a decade for this moment. The old songs were naturally received with louder cheers and more sustained applause and the volume and energy of the band's performance was a welcome relief after the fiasco of At The Drive-In's brief, cash-fuelled reunion. The jaded defeatism of 'The Happiest Place on Earth' and unbridled joy of 'Manana' were just as heartfelt as before and the angry cynicism of 'Greater Omaha' could still be heard in the trademark shakiness of Oberst's delivery but throughout there was something slightly amiss. In the new material there was an overbearing feeling that by returning to their anti-establishment roots after years of conformity they, or at least Oberst, hits slightly wide of the target in trying to hard.
Make no mistake, the themes and lyrics of the original album - of rampant, desensitising capitalism; of disaffected youth and computerised warfare; of the feral rich and trappings of modern consumerism - are just as relevant today as they were ten years ago, and it was those songs which stood out strongest in the set, both lyrically and musically. But when new tracks 'The Left is Right' and 'Anonymous' are so obviously littered with references to the protest groups and sentiments that have sprung up since Read Music/Speak Spanish was released, as well as being intentional fist-in-the-air punk anthems-by-numbers, it feels like Oberst and co are trying to ingratiate themselves with a movement from which they have been publicly absent for so long.
Some cases in point: he somehow missed the irony of declaring "the age of the rock star is dead" while acting like one himself, stepping on stage in sunglasses and throwing cash at the crowd. The fact that t-shirts were £20 each but made in Bangladesh completely betrayed the inequalities and immoralities of modern capitalism that so many songs originally highlighted. And by going against the first rule of lyric writing in these new songs, that is, to show the idea being conveyed rather than to spell it out literally, Oberst left himself wide open to criticism should he not practice what he preach, as much of this performance indicated. When they stick to writing from the heart, as with other 7" 'Backsell/MariKKKopa' and the whole of Read Music/Speak Spanish, then the quality and originality really shines through but actively trying to write such strongly worded anthems for a movement they seem detached from is ultimately doomed to failure.
Oberst has always had his heart in the right place but a life based on royalties and past successes may have gone to his head. Let's hope he can get his feet back on the ground, to the grassroots he sings about, and then we may have a band to truly believe in again. Until then the 22-year-old Conor, fresh out of college and full of ideas, will be the side of Desaparecidos that should be remembered and cherished. Spinning on record players without contrivance or pretence, singing songs we can believe in.