Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Thor Christensen
01/23/2005 | Dallas Morning News | Feature
When Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst croons "I could have been a famous singer if I had someone else's voice," he's not complaining - just stating a fact. His shaky Elmer Fudd-meets-Robert Smith moan is too weird to make it on Total Request Live, and besides, what good is fame anyway?

Not much, judging from the tales of angst and alcohol he tells on Bright Eyes' two new CDs, the folkish I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the electro-fired Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. A year ago, the 24-year-old indie-rock poster boy left Omaha, Neb. - "the sorrowful Midwest," as he calls it on Digital - for the limelight of New York City. But cavorting with actors and anorexic models didn't give him happiness - just a hangover and a case of self-loathing.

"When I kneel at the toilet and the morning's clean light pours in through the window/Sometimes I pray I don't die," he sings on Digital's "Hit the Switch," then adds, "I'm a goddamn hypocrite!"

Mr. Oberst is one of the most soul-baring songwriters around, a guy with a heart on his sleeve and a lemon permanently glued to his tongue: He sees society crumbling around him, and his best new songs are often his angriest, such as "Road to Joy," an anti-war tune that goes from a sob to a scream.

But as emotional as his lyrics are, the real news on Wide Awake and Digital Ash is the music, which shows depth and range he only hinted at on Bright Eyes' last CD, Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002).

On Digital, he teams with Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner for a slew of unpredictable electro-pop tunes: Instead of wallowing in '80s nostalgia like his peers, Mr. Oberst uses new wave as a trampoline into a new world where flamenco guitars go hand in hand with synthesizers and big band beats.

Wide Awake is even better. He's obviously listened to his share of Bob Dylan ("First Day of My Life" starts off exactly like "Don't Think Twice It's All Right") and the country-punk tune "Another Travelin' Song" is a dead-ringer for the Old 97's. But his melodies are so bittersweet and his ballads so sharp he rises above his influences. Hiring country-folk goddess Emmylou Harris to sing harmony on three tunes doesn't hurt his cause, either.

Mr. Oberst still has a thing or two to learn about subtlety, such as in "Poison Oak," when his voice vibrates so rapidly you'd think he was gargling. But as long as he keeps making albums as mature-sounding as Wide Awake and Digital Ash, it's easy to forgive the youthful histrionics.




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