Bright Eyes started as a side project of Conor Oberst's while he was the frontman for the indie rock outfit Commander Venus, which featured Tim Kasher who later went on to form the band Cursive. Though the band remained his primary focus between the years 1995 and 1997 , Oberst continued to write and record acoustic solo material onto his father's four-track reel-to-reel in his parents' basement. Of the 70 songs reportedly recorded, two found their way onto the first official Bright Eyes release, an untitled 7" split with the band Squad Car 96.
By the time Commander Venus disbanded in 1997, Bright Eyes had become Oberst's main focus. In 1998, he released another 20 of the songs he had been stockpiling as the first official Bright Eyes album, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997. The album saw Oberst beginning to experiment with drum machines, keyboards and other instruments. The sound of the album ranges from bleating vocals, which at the beginning were criticized as sounding like an inauthentic David Dondero, to acoustic guitar songs and techno-style synthesizer instrumentals. Critical reaction was mixed, with All Music Guide saying that many of "the songs disintegrate as his vocals are reduced to the unintelligible babbling of a child. Any balance the music maintained up to that point, however fragile, is lost and so, more than likely, is the listener."
Saddle Creek put forth Letting Off the Happiness on November 2, 1998, a ten track piece that boasted a much more focused and clear sound than the previous album. According to the Saddle Creek press release, it features members of Lullaby for the Working Class, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Of Montreal. Park Ave. bandmate Neely Jenkins contributed some vocals as well. It was predominantly recorded in the Oberst family basement in Omaha on an analog eight track reel to reel; with some work also done at keyboardist Andy Lemaster's Athens, Georgia studio. Although almost all of the tracks feature a full band, "June on the West Coast" is performed with only acoustic guitar and vocals. "Padraic My Prince" gives a dramatic (albeit fictional) account of Conor's younger brother drowning in the bath. Oberst references the song in "Cartoon Blues" on the Four Winds EP.
In 2000, Bright Eyes released Fevers and Mirrors, a demonstration of the immense improvement in production quality and musical vision of the band. New instruments such as flute, piano, and accordion were introduced into the song arrangements. After "An Attempt to Tip the Scales", a mock radio interview takes place in which Oberst intentionally presents a strange, contradictory explanation of his attitude towards his music. The interview acknowledges criticisms of his lyrics as overblown and insincere, which had begun to appear as the popularity of the band increased, but responds by stating that the lyrics are meant for personal interpretation. There are reports that it is not Oberst at all in the interview, but Todd Fink of The Faint doing an impression of Oberst, and that Oberst himself can be heard in the background, swearing and commenting on the interview taking place.
In 2002 came Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. The difference was immediate. Bright Eyes became one of the year's most celebrated "new" artists - despite having been recording under that moniker for a few years. They received national attention, including in several notable pieces in the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, Rolling Stone, Blender and Spin, many of which proclaimed Conor Oberst to be a significant new artist. The album was a commercial success and has sold over 250,000 copies, a breakthrough for the label and for all of the band's peers at that time.
During the 2004 election season, Bright Eyes toured with Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. on the MoveOn.org "Vote for Change" tour, further pushing Bright Eyes into the public eye. Oberst sang numerous duets with the likes of Springsteen and Neil Young.
In early November 2004, two Bright Eyes singles, "Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)", reached the two top spots on the Billboard Hot 100 Single Sales, a remarkable feat for a musician on an independent label. This was the first time this had happened on the list in seven years.
January 25, 2005 saw the release of two distinctly different Bright Eyes albums: the folky, analog sounding I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the electronic/computer sounding Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Both albums were met with success and generally good reviews and an extensive world tour followed. Later in the year, a live album, Motion Sickness followed, documenting the I'm Wide Awake, its Morning tour.
On May 6, 2005 Bright Eyes appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and performed the protest song "When the President Talks to God", a scathing rebuke of the Bush administration. A 7" vinyl single of the song was soon after sold at concerts and is available for download free of charge on the US iTunes Music Store.
Bright Eyes has actively protested against the Clear Channel media company. Oberst has vocally advocated the boycotting of all Clear Channel events, venues, and radio stations, perhaps most publicly at the Shortlist Awards show at Los Angeles's Wiltern Theatre on October 5, 2003. On November 9, 2005, Bright Eyes cancelled their November 12 show in St. Louis upon discovering that the venue was associated with Clear Channel.
Bright Eyes won Artist of the Year and Song of the Year for "When the President Talks to God" at the PLUG Independent Music Awards and a Special Recognition Award for the video for "First Day of My Life" at the 17th Annual GLAAD Media Awards. Additionally, Time Magazine listed I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning as one of the top ten albums of 2005.
Bright Eyes received a pop-culture honor on May 20, 2006 in being mentioned in an episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Kevin Spacey. The show was making fun of Neil Young's not-so-subtle dislike of George W. Bush, specifically on his album Living With War. Young was joined by Dixie Chicks and "indie sensation Bright Eyes," both of whom have been very public in their criticism of Bush. Conor Oberst was played by Andy Samberg and Neil Young was played by Spacey.
After releasing three albums in 2005, Oberst stated that he did not plan to release an album in 2006. However, on October 24, 2006, a compilation of rare tracks entitled Noise Floor (Rarities: 1998-2005) was released.
On March 8, 2007, Oberst appeared on NPR's All Songs Considered, playing a selection of tracks in his collection, as well as several from Four Winds.
Bright Eyes plans to release a new studio album entitled Cassadaga via Saddle Creek on April 10, 2007 in the U.S. and April 9, 2007 in the UK, with an EP entitled Four Winds on March 6, 2007. About 25-30 tracks were recorded in New York City, Portland, OR, and Lincoln, NE, but only 18 of them will be released between the album and the EP. Contributors include Gillian Welch, Janet Weiss, and M. Ward. The track "Endless Entertainment" has circulated over the internet from new official site, ThisIsBrightEyes.com.
In support of this album, Bright Eyes has announced North American tour dates from February to March of 2007.