Rediscovered #7: Read Music / Speak Spanish

by Dominic Woodcock

Best known as the frontman of indie rock stalwart Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst does not seem like the most appropriate pick for a column highlighting overlooked albums. However, six months before that band blew up with their 2002 album Lifted, he released a boisterous record with a different band, Desaparecidos. The band only existed for a year, as they disbanded due to Bright Eyes’ snowballing popularity, but their one full-length album, Read Music / Speak Spanish, is shamelessly overlooked in Oberst’s canon. Oberst sings on the album’s fifth track “They say it’s murder on your folk career to make a rock record,” but it did not present an issue for him. Whereas Bright Eyes is predominantly known for its frank lyrics, Desaparecidos is defined by its focus on catchy melodies and a political message.

Although I opined in my previous column that I typically object to the blending of politics and music, this is admittedly Desaparecidos’ lifeblood. Even the name has political bearings, translating as “disappeared ones,” a reference to those who vanished after being arrested by South American military dictatorships. With lyrics rooted in the state of early-2000s America, Desaparecidos is undeniably the exception to my rule against political lyrics. Oberst’s sincerity does not come across as preachy; it feels desperate and vital.

On the very first line of the album, Oberst takes on the character of a husband, confessing “It’s night but I can’t stay asleep,” later admitting that this anxiety is caused by finances and the struggle to support his family. The track’s story is one of a typical family struggling to stay afloat financially, singing “If you need money for bills this month, my love I’d cover you / And if you have to lie to everyone / I’d cover up for you.” It is clear that his wife’s situation is desperate, and she does not want to lose face by admitting her financial woes to anyone else. Oberst’s forthright lyrics paint a vivid picture on their own, but his desperate, shaky vocal delivery gives it a resolute sense of veracity.

That opening track is entitled Man and Wife, The Former (Financial Planning), and the album follows it up on the fourth track Man and Wife, The Latter (Damaged Goods). The mood of the latter is more melancholic and brooding and the band returns to the theme of a couple struggling to get by. This time it is taken from the perspective of the wife who is “growing out my hair / like it was when I was single.” She wants affection from her husband – he takes her out for dinner and buys her gifts, but romantically he shows “disinterest”, and she feels as though she is just another bill for him to pay. The track culminates in Oberst yelling “The word is love / the word is loss” before a cathartically explosive outro. Together, the two tracks explore the same relationship from each perspective and shows their different perception of money’s importance. It is clear that – miscommunication aside – the capitalist focus on money is responsible for driving this couple apart.

Elsewhere on the album, Oberst attacks America’s social immobility, foreign wars, and urbanisation. As well as capitalism – a lot of capitalism. Following on from a field-recorded conversation about the growth of Omaha (the band’s hometown), Greater Omaha criticises the expansion of the city which has been prioritised by the 1% over feeding the poor. Oberst juxtaposes the widening of a main road because of the minor problem that the traffic is “kind of bad” with the fact that people are starving in the city.

At the end of the album, on closer Hole In One, Oberst admits his own hypocrisy. He sings “Never mind the shit that I sing about / ‘Cause I’d sell myself to buy a fucking house.” He buys records at corporate chain stores and dreams about materialistic goals. This further stops the album from feeling moralistic: he acknowledge that he is not infallible himself and that he is just as much a part of the problem as anyone else.

Out of the blue in April 2012, the band returned with two new songs (entitled MariKKKopa and Backsell) that were just as great as anything on their album, but their tracks since such as Anonymous and The Left Is Right have eschewed subtlety to the point that their message feels cloying and didactic. They recently announced the release of a second album, Payola, in June this year, but it remains to be seen whether it will live up to their promise of the band’s first full-length record.

As well as lyrical deftness, the infectious nature of the band’s instrumentals keeps Read Music / Speak Spanish feeling overwrought rather than preachy. Every single track has some catchy hook or melody which makes the entire thing an undeniably fun listen. Consequently, the political message is seamlessly delivered and feels earnest. Although the band’s most recent singles have lost any semblance of subtlety, the band’s new album is sure to be an interesting listen. Regardless of anything they have done since, Read Music / Speak Spanish remains an astonishing, frenzied and important album.