Conor Oberst is a guy who just doesn't get it. We all know someone like him: he's the guy who complains that everyone watches crappy tv sitcoms instead of reading, that all the modes of artistic expression are controlled by huge corporations motivated by profit margins rather than the creation of art, and that we're all shackled at a young age by the debt that our materialistic desires create. He's the guy who (as we hear in a taped conversation tucked away in between two tracks) bemoans the passing of a locally-owned coffee shop and its replacement by a Starbucks.
As the leader of Bright Eyes, Oberst is better known for Elephant 6-style folk pop, but with Los Desaparecidos (Spanish for "The Disappeared"), he has ventured boldly into the indie rock stomping grounds of bands like Modest Mouse and ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. In fact, Desaparecidos resemblance to those bands is uncanny; the overwhelming guitar crunch and the flat tone of Oberst's voice is very much like Trail of Dead, while a slight lisp and a Pixies-like howl that comes out at least once a song are a page straight out of Modest Mouse's style book. The thematic territory is similar, too: suburban disenchantment, the pain of dying relationships, and a sense of intangible, indefinable loss. Not that this is a bad thing; "Read Music Speak Spanish" is a masterful blend of personal stories of love lost and politically-oriented manifestos against the encroaching uniformity that is washing across our nation in a tide of corporate materialismoften in the same song.
Album starts off with the roar of the awkwardly titled "Man and Wife, The Former (Financial Planning)", which tells the story of the struggles of a young couple just starting out in life from the man's point of view:
I sold some shit, I'm saving up
We can get that house next to the park
With the extra hours I picked up
We will pay for everything
It is more than just the story of this particular couple, however; it's also a cautionary tale about how easy it is to fall into debt in the quest to join and eventually rise above the middle class. The other half of this story is told two songs later in "Man and Wife, The Latter (Damaged Goods)", which finds the same couple years later, ensconsed in their upper-middle class lifestyle but alienated from each other. This time we see things from the woman's point of view. Feeling trapped in a marriage with a man she still loves but whose dedication to his career has left him little time for his relationship with his wife, she ponders a divorce that she doesn't really want:
So now you want to change
You read a letter from a lawyer
Want to take me out to dinner
Want to bury me under a mound of shopping bags
Like it would really make a difference
Or make up for your disinterest
I'm a bill you pay
I'm a contract you can't break
The two-song mini-cycle is a microcosm of modern American society: the corporations have told us that if we just have lots of cool stuff and live in big houses and drive nice cars, everything else will work out. It's only when we're much older that we realize those are the things that count the least, and sometimes it's too late to fix what took so long to break. Love, committment, and all the everyday things that we do for each other are what will really carry us through the hard times, but since they can't sell those things to us, they'd rather not have us know that.
In between these two songs are two blistering indictments of corporate America sandwiched around a taped conversation between Oberst and a friend about their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. "Manana" calls for out and out revolution against the status quo demanding that we take back our futures from the companies who have seized control of the culture in the name of profit, a biting satire of the hostile corporate takeover in which Oberst submits a non-negotiable offer to the corporate overlords:
Tomorrow is blank
We'll just fill it in with our own answers
If we are stopped, we'll just start again
That is the new offer
After a short, barely audible snippet of a conversation about the replacement of Omaha's unique, homegrown stores with chain stores and the generic faux-cutlure that is rendering every place in America just like every other place in America (where you can hear Oberst literally choking with bewilderment at his friend's joy in discovering that a new Starbucks will soon take the place of a local mom-and-pop diner), the band launches into "Greater Omaha", a bitter rant against SUVs, convenience stores, the proliferation of featureless parking lots where fields of wheat used to grow, and all the other needless excesses of our culture of consumption:
It's All U Can Eat
And they will never get enough
They'll be feeding us
They'll be feeding on us
One more mouthful and they will be happy then
The rest of the record covers the same territory as the first few songs, but the lyrical rants never lose their impact, just as the consistently agressive guitars never lose their power. It would be easy to step over the line and be overly preachy, but despite the political themes and the confrontation tone, this album never alienates the listener; even while he's being harshly critical of a lifestyle that is the chosen lifestyle of better than 95% of his audience, Oberst never comes off as holier-than-thou. In fact, he's almost desperately asking for our help.
At it's heart, "Read Music Speak Spanish" is a lovesong to an Omaha that Oberst can see disappearing before his eyes. The Starbucks are coming, and the bulldozers that clear the way for them also erase the memories of what the city used to be before it became just like every other city in America. The closing song, "Hole in One", tells the story of a farmer who moved to the suburbs and took a more conventional job so he could lead a more conventional life:
So you took your family
And joined in the urban sprawl
Now you can't see the stars as well
But you're near the mall
But Oberst isn't condeming him; in stark contrast to the Eddie Vedders and Bonos of the world, he's more than willing to admit that he's no better than the rest of us, and despite the fact that he thinks that greed and materialism is destroying the fabric of our cities, our society, and our nation, he'd sell out in a second if given the opportunity:
So run it up, I'll run my mouth
But never mind the shit that I sing about
Because I'd sell myself to buy a fucking house
This honesty says more about the problems of globalization and the corporate virus that threatens to infect every corner of America than all the protest songs in the world: how do we makes changes to a corrupt system in which even the most outspoken critics are also willing participants? Why do we all aspire to live a lifestyle that we know, in the end, is devoid of meaning? How can we free ourselves from the yoke of materialism without giving up some of the pleasures that come with a high standard of living?
I don't know. Maybe he does get it after all.