I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – Bright EyesDigital Ashes in a Digital Urn – Bright Eyes
Saddle Creek 72
Saddle Creek 73
If you didn't know Conor Oberst or his band alter-ego Bright Eyes, you received an introduction over the past couple months when his glowering face was pasted on the covers of a half dozen music magazines. Each publication aimed to anoint his Genius, but none have dared to call him a New Dylan. Happily, that phrase has been phased out of the rock scribe language as far as I know — and rightly so. There's only one enigmatic Genius to stand on that (unwanted) pedestal, and if you don't want to stand in his shadow, you come up with your own version.
And that's what Oberst has done on Bright Eyes' two releases, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Each disc is as distinct from the other as it is chock full of recognizable influences that fail to lessen the impact of what the Omaha, Nebraska native achieves.
On I’m Wide Awake, it’s clear that Oberst has made more than a passing listen to Highway 61 Revisited. Blonde On Blonde and even The Basement Tapes. Like classic Dylan, Oberst’s gift for the English language always makes for engaging twists and turns, leaving you anticipating each verbal surprise that pops up and the tangents the narrative takes.
He debuted several of the numbers during Bright Eyes' stint on the Vote For Change Tour last October including "Land Locked Blues" and "Road To Joy." Like the other eight tracks, he balances defiance to the system with the intricacies of personal relationships. In both cases, the battles are fought on a daily basis and rarely does one feel like a victor.
But whether it's just him and a guitar or surrounded by pedal steel, mandolin, trumpet and the background voice of Emmylou Harris, he makes this journey similar to the one in real life — a necessary repeat.
While I’m Wide Awake gives the impression it could have been recorded at Big Pink in Woodstock, Digital Ash turns that rootsiness on its head with treated drum tracks, sound effects, woozy rhythms and a sense of unease and longing that was hinted at earlier but now boils over into melancholy, regret and despondency. Interpretation could lead one to view Oberst going over the break from his Omaha neighborhood to his new digs in New York to the break up of a relationship and even the breaking apart of the country he resides. A line here or there could support all three arguments.
Immediately announcing the difference between its companion piece, the album opens with an industrial soundtrack that sounds like Oberst being led away to his 1984-esque cell following his swipes at the Bush administration and his memorable line onstage at the VFC performance in Cleveland, "A vote for Bush is like shitting in your own bed."
The 12 numbers here display influential checkpoints from Nine Inch Nails to David Bowie, Brian Eno and the Beatles, but only as ingredients in the final musical recipe. Oberst's lyrical settings, melodic flair, tentative voice (a warmer combination of the Cure's Robert Smith and Jim Carroll) embrace these things and shape them into his own sonic sculpture. And with it all, there remain other surprises — the calypso synthesized feel running through "Arc Of Time" and the manner its uses religious imagery to mull over religious teachings, the upbeat pop ala the Cars on "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)."
Although it seems as the world surrounding Digital Ash gets darker and darker ‘til the music falls apart as the Atomic Clock ticks down to zero, the album’s saving grace is its ability to make this winding down of humanity one intriguing moment after another.
With two albums to choose from, it's a tough call to view one as outshining the other. It's more of a matter of what day is it and did I just make the mistake (again) of turning on the news?
Bright Eyes feeds into the frustrations of a 21st century world that looks more and more like the one envisioned by Orwell, but it's a hypnotic soundtrack to have as the world goes by and Big Brother watches over you.