Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Tyler
01/16/2005 | | | Album Review
The last full-length album put out by Bright Eyes, 2002's excellent Lifted, Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground, was a careening, cinematic affair, combining grandiose statements and intimate portraits of universal love and loss, with insight far beyond the years of songwriter Conor Oberst, only 22 at the time. Oberst's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful release to date, Lifted... left behind the well-instrumented but personal sound of 2000's Fevers and Mirrors, catapulting Oberst and his songs about being young, drunk, and lost into the public eye. And for good reason: Lifted... was an ambitious statement that had a reach far beyond almost every contemporary of the young songwriter.

Where does that leave Oberst in 2005? After three years of extensive (and oppressive) press, side projects (Desaparecidos), numerous splits and collaborations (the best being his 2004 collaboration with Neva Dinova), it seems like Lifted... came from a boy a long time ago, an artist still relatively sheltered from the consuming public. Now with high expectations and a larger audience than ever, Oberst and his motley musical crew (now featuring Nick Zinner, Jim James, Emmylou Harris, members of Now It's Overhead and the Faint, and the ubiquitous Mike Mogis,) are releasing not one, but two new Bright Eyes albums, each with a distinct feel. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning warmly embraces some of Oberst's best songs with sparse mandolin, pedal steel, and acoustic guitar, recalling Lifted's "Make War", with irony replaced by grit and earnestness. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, however, isn't a simplification like I'm Wide Awake, instead reaching for new sounds at every turn, featuring electronics and white-noise guitar.

Where Lifted... made Oberst sound like he was making grand statements as small as a secret and as big as a mountain, Digital Ash finds Oberst buried up to his neck in skittering instrumentation, playing with the electronics that were hinted at on his 2001 Sub Pop release, I Will Be Grateful For This Day. Beginning with "Time Code", Oberst's first vocal appearance is a recording of panting, desperate breaths, starting the record like New Order having a panic attack. Digital Ash opens like a bad dream, and rarely lets up on the fear and desperation from the first track, the beats and the sounds now providing an instrumental equivalent to the paranoia and desperation in Oberst's lyrics, tracks like "Ship In A Bottle" giving his words a fitting, if broken, home. His lyrics have seemed to also reached a new level of alienation on Digital Ash, his youthful hopes turned to modern fears, referring to "refrigerators full of blood" on closing track "Easy/Lucky/Free", and comparisons of hearts with houses of cards. "Down A Rabbit Hole", the album's highlight, is a perfect distillation of Digital Ash, with guest star Nick Zinner's guitars screaming and aching behind the story-lyrics about a girl who has run away from him into the digital world he fears so much. The gothic drum textures and heart-wrenching strings recall Radiohead at their peak on OK Computer, "Crawling Up The Walls", where it doesn't matter what Oberst is saying; the sounds are so deathly that you have no choice but to get chills.

The first single from Digital Ash, "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" is easily the most successful combination of electronic experiments with Oberst's words meeting Jimmy Tamborello (of Dntel)'s skittering, energetic beats, guitars and keyboards running across the speakers. The instrumentation all over the album carries this funhouse aesthetic: horns, strings, and found-noise pieces pop up in unusual contexts at every turn, rarely settling for cliche arrangements. In fact, Digital Ash only falters when it becomes less ambitious, settling for Fevers and Mirrors-isms that don't push the record forward, like the straight-ahead second track, "I Believe In Symmetry". Although still an excellent track, compared to the midnight melodrama of "Devil in the Details", it falls flat. But on the highlights of the album, Bright Eyes turns in songs that are masterpieces of modern life and the alienation created by armies of busy signals and soulless city streets.

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning dispenses with Digital Ash's ambitious arrangements, settling for a down-home combination of folk, bluegrass and country. The record recalls the careening drunk Oberst played in "Lover I Don't Have To Love", singing songs the morning after a long night out. Oberst has never seemed upbeat, but this is the first time on record that Oberst seems not merely weary of love, but weary of the world, tired from too much wine, women, and song. The biggest surprise on I'm Wide Awake isn't the instrumentation, but the subject matter: between Lifted... and these records before us, Oberst moved to New York, and the lyrical influence is immediately apparent. On "Train Underwater", he states: "I was a postcard, I was a record, I was a camera, until I went blind...and now I am riding all over this island looking for something to open my eyes." And on the single "Lua", Oberst sings about walking New York streets in the late night, with taxis turning their lights off and actors throwing parties on the West Side.

The record switches track-to-track from one-man ballads ("Lua", "First Day of My Life",) to full-band country blusters ("Road To Joy", "Another Travellin' Song",) but is held together by it's warm, morning-after aesthetic, mandolins and pedal steels always recalling a midday sun and hazy memories. "Landlocked Blues", a gin-soaked re-recording of "One Foot In Front of The Other", featured on the Saddle Creek 50 compilation of last year, is a track full of the hazy horns and mid-tempo marching that characterize the arrangements of I'm Wide Awake, reminiscent of loud laughter on a quiet morning.

Each record, standing on its own merits, does not take the listener through a journey as Fevers and Mirrors or Lifted... did previously, acting more as excercises in a mood. However, listening to the two records side by side provide a compelling challenge to the listener never prompted before: Oberst has not only made records of two different styles, but two different mindsets. Digital Ash is the fearful record: images of stabbing, sleep, and blood filling the lyrics, with the apocalyptic guitar work of Nick Zinner as well as the canned, harsh drums sound conjure up equally violent imagery. I'm Wide Awake is the hopeful antithesis of Digital Ash, the record filled with hopeful messages such as "and in the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn't dream, we must sing...". But by separating these two themes, hope and loss, the listener is left to decide Oberst's message: are these two albums celebrating hope over overwhelming alienation, or are they showing an inevitable defeat of human emotion by modern society?

Perhaps there's another interpretation: opening I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, Oberst tells a story of a man singing a birthday song while a plane crashes, telling the woman sitting next to him "We're going to a party. We're going to a birthday party. It's your birthday, happy birthday, darlin'...we all love you very very very very much." Maybe Oberst is this man, singing us all one last song before our plane hits the ground, a last hurrah before our lives end, with these two albums as celebrations of life on the glorious ride down.