Like a memoir versus a short story, it all comes down to tone. Bright Eyes and Bonnie "Prince" Billy tend territory along the same rustic stretch, mining veins of folk, country and blues with aching, emotional paeans that turn on dramatic vocal styles. By virtue of their very different approaches to songwriting, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) produce music of wildly divergent emotional pitches, and the recent release of two live albums helps put the contrast in sharp relief.
Since getting his musical start in 1992, Oldham's purveyed austere, gothic stories of grim men in even grimmer circumstances, pining patiently for their comeuppance or damnation like a backwoods Waiting for Godot. With his high lonesome tenor, Oldham drawls out fatalistic tales like a Pentecostal Uncle Remus hooked on Appalachian murder ballads. Originally an actor, Oldham's big break came in John Sayles' 1987 movie Matewan, in which he played a teenage West Virginia miner/preacher. (He also appeared in a made-for-TV movie about Baby Jessica.)
Born in Louisville, Oldham brings an actor's aesthetic to his music. His songs (particularly early on) are often delivered as dramatic monologues from a particular character's point of view, sometimes turning on an essential revelation or bit of irony in the last verse. (Consider 1993's "Riding," which reveals incest and love, or 2003's haunting "Wolf Among Wolves," whose narrator admits his fundamental distrust even as he's his lover's source of security.) Oldham's stark vocals and spare arrangements turn the figurative spotlight on the song's narrator, subtly distancing the listener and drawing him to question the storyteller's motives and subtext.
This contrasts with Oberst, who wears the more time-honored if no less artificial mantle of the confessional singer/songwriter. Words and emotions spew from Oberst like a leaky water balloon, relying on his charisma and performance to carry songs that are less stories than soul-baring admissions. Oberst's voice breaks with emotion as he guides listeners through tangled philosophy and self-analysis, winding toward some cloudy revelation. Oberst's style is as theatrical as Oldham's, but less because of what is said than how it's said.
With boyish good looks to accompany his sensitive nature, Oberst's better equipped to ply the role of self-conscious everyman than Oldham, who's already the odd duck and onstage appears positively possessed (in a "they're here" fashion). Oberst's winning "cult of personality" is enhanced by more than a decade in bands since he was 12 and an ambition that made the overheated "new Dylan" genuflections after 2002's Lifted almost inevitable.
Mixing in personal details and shout-outs to friends (such as Cursive's Tim Kasher), Oberst strives for a directness that dovetails with the sincerity and emotional frankness of his songs. While at face value this could be cloying, the folk-based arrangements which in the studio turn into theatrical blooms of producer Mike Mogis' ramshackle, kitchen-sink chamber pop offer a homey "Our Gang" hootenanny backing that mediates the grandstanding implicit in Oberst's emotional stripteases.
Oberst's artifice-less, me-and-my-chums tact and Oldham's affected antediluvian style are both guises but offer a great example of indie music's trend toward honesty and emotional vulnerability, as opposed to the irony and ambivalence that characterized the '90s. Though released at the same time, these live albums document a different time and tone, a progression from arch to firstname.lastname@example.org