Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Evelyn McDonnell
01/23/2005 | Miami Herald | www.miami.com | Feature
The mantle ''generational spokesman'' doesn't hang easily on the broadest of shoulders, and 24-year-old Conor Oberst -- a k a the indie-rock troubadour Bright Eyes -- has the skinny, gamine frame of a bookworm, an introvert, a pote maudit. At times over the past few years, as his fretboard confessional songs vaulted from their Omaha heartland and began landing him on world stages alongside such figures as Bruce Springsteen, it seemed like the weight of responsibility would crack open the fissure line in Oberst's trembling voice and he'd crumble apart, another brilliant, doomed rock-'n'-roll angel (R.I.P. Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith).

Or he'd go the other way, believe the hype and indulge in some messianic overkill, like, say, release two albums simultaneously.

Oops.

It comes as a great relief to the legions of publications that have been spreading the gospel of Bright Eyes, from Rolling Stone to The New York Times to (before those Johnny-come-latelies) The Herald, that, first of all, Oberst is still alive. And, second of all, kicking: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morningand Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the two Bright Eyes CDs being released by Omaha label Saddle Creek on Tuesday, show that Oberst has reached a new level of maturity and sophistication in his work. And just may be holding up that mantle.

''I've made an attempt in the last couple years to try to make the writing a little more universal, and hopefully people can take more away from it,'' says Oberst, speaking from a cellphone on a tour bus somewhere in the frozen tundra between Chicago and Ann Arbor, Mich. ''Part of that is just that for a long time the idea of an audience was very abstract. I was basically just writing for myself and my friends. Now it's different. I knew people were going to hear the records. It's just that awareness, trying to make the most of that opportunity to try to communicate with people.''

Refusing to consort with major labels and Clear Channel, Bright Eyes has not yet transcended his cult artist status. But that may be changing. The albums were preceded by the release of two singles, Lua and Take It Easy (Love Nothing). In November, they occupied the top two slots on Billboard's Hot 100 Single Sales chart; the last time an artist did that was P. Diddy in '97. Bright Eyes has already played The Late Show with David Letterman, sold out tours and become huge in Europe. Alternative magazines feature him in cover stories that treat his every utterance as oracular. At shows, the kids know all the words.

Of the two releases, Wide Awake, a folk album that features guest appearances by Emmylou Harris and My Morning Jacket's Jim James, has been garnering the better reviews, drawing out all those ''next Dylan'' comparisons. Oberst and the six bandmates who are this season's incarnation of Bright Eyes will be playing selections from it, along with older material, on the tour that brings them to Miami's Gusman Theater Feb. 3. That lineup will be considerably pared down from the last two times Bright Eyes came to town, when Oberst seemed to have brought an entire high school band and orchestra class with him.

''We tailored it to fit the needs of playing that record: the instruments we need to make it sound good for those songs,'' Oberst says.

Employing electronic devices and even calypso grooves, Digital Ashis Oberst's Dylan-goes-electric CD: a bolder, hipper but more failure-prone recording than Wide Awake. A different, multimedia lineup will play Ash's songs later this year, in a tour with his Omaha friends the Faint.

Neither album has the over-the-top arrangements and sentiments of '02's breakthrough Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. But there's concise, clear songwriting, and a sense of poetry that shows Oberst, who began recording when he was 13, has chosen his words this time, instead of spewing them out (he's known to write a song a day).

''I'm keeping up with the moon on an all-night avenue,'' he sings on Wide Awake's Train Under Water. It's one of several songs that shows the mark of the city he now calls home: New York.

''It's a pretty intoxicating place,'' he says. ''Especially on I'm Wide Awake, a lot of those songs were written around the first six to nine months of living there. To me I kind of absorb it, wherever I am, whatever environment I'm in, I take it on in, and then eventually it comes out in the music. There's certainly a lot of things to take in in New York, new experiences. It's inspiring.''

Gotham seems to have tempered Oberst's tendency to lyrically self-obsess. ''It definitely puts it in context. You're just a little piece.''

Oberst was both humbled and inspired by his participation in the Vote For Change tour, where he played arenas on bills that included Springsteen and R.E.M. The Boss introduced Bright Eyes to audiences, telling them he was ''blown away'' by Oberst's records, and then called him back up to join him on encores.

''It was a really amazing experience,'' Oberst says. ''My parents and my oldest brother have always been Springsteen fans. I love the music and respect the people a lot. Also, to be involved in something that seemed to transcend entertainment for the moment. It was more about communicating some ideas and being part of something you believed in.''

Of course, the change the musicians were campaigning for -- John Kerry's election -- didn't come.

''I didn't feel any differently about the concerts,'' he says. ''But obviously I've been feeling all the various emotions: fear, mostly, and sadness, anger, helplessness, stuff like that.''

Oberst says a call from his new pal Springsteen lifted his spirits. ''He called a few days after the election and thanked us again for being part of the tour. He did make me feel a lot better about it, he was just like, this is just a beginning. We can't lose hope.''

Oberst has been courted by probably every major label, but he sticks with his friends Saddle Creek. ''Making a living; that's all that matters,'' he told The Herald three years ago. ''Some people have ambition that encompasses the whole world. I know that I don't want to be like that.''

It's a similar dedication to quality over quantity that's bringing him to play his fourth Miami show (the first was with the rock band Desaparecidos). ''It's always been nice. It's kind of out of the way but worth the drive for sure.''

Oberst is the type of independent artist who loads his band with friends and supports self-starters like J.C. Moya, the Miami promoter of this and the last two Bright Eyes shows. Moya says that Bright Eyes' people begged him to book the band, although a more established promoter was also pursuing the show.

''There's a kind of loyalty that they're exhibiting that is really rare,'' says Moya. ''It shows a commitment on his part to both his audience and his collaborators.''

Loyalty begets loyalty. Oberst has become a symbol of art's triumph over commercialism to thousands of bright-eyed followers who snap up his every single and EP. He'd probably rather be a singer than a spokesman. But he can't seem to stop turning listeners into believers.