Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Jonathan Valania
01/27/2005 | Philadelphia Weekly | www.philadelphiaweekly.com | Album Review
The biggest cliche about Bright Eyes--aka 24-year-old indie-pop pinup Conor Oberst--is that he's emerged as the latest "new Dylan," a Mr. Tambourine Man for the O.C. nation. Like all cliches, this one's been worn meaningless by overuse. And yet it's essentially true. Heck, Oberst already got props from the last new Dylan who amounted to anything: Bruce Springsteen.

Like Dylan in his prime, Oberst writes long, elliptical narratives--weaving word-clotted threads of angst and regret, anger and shame, ecstasy and joy, through a camel's eye of symbolism, creating word circuses that fascinate even when they flirt with meaninglessness. As with Dylan's songs, when you boil them all down, they're essentially about one thing: the wonder of consciousness. Baby I'm amazed, therefore I am.

Both Bob Dylan and Oberst come from the Midwest--Dylan from Duluth, Minn., and Oberst from Omaha, Neb. (his dad actually works in that iconic Mutual of Omaha skyscraper). Both migrated to New York City to pursue their chemical fortunes, riding into town on a ribbon of personal myth and self-invention. Both are--or in Dylan's case, were--J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield incarnate: impossibly young, madly poetic and profoundly alienated.

Both mastered the art of courting attention while seeming to want to be left alone. Both have voices that are, to put it charitably, acquired tastes, and yet they've both managed to convert a laughably limited range and a very casual relationship with pitch into a remarkably expressive instrument.

Finally, both have managed to express definitively what it feels like to be young and alive and trying to mapquest meaning with only an acoustic guitar for a compass. As a result, they've become existential weathermen for large, loyal followings eager to know which way the metaphysical winds are blowing.

In 1965 Dylan went electric and managed to alienate large swaths of sandal-wearing folkniks. In 2005 Oberst has gone electronic with the just-out Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, which will likely alienate many wearers of lime-green Pumas who have come to rely on Bright Eyes' squishy emo-folk for "Deep Thoughts"-style insights into their own lives.

History shows that the audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was right to boo Dylan's reckless foray into electrocuted folk--by all accounts his backing band was woefully underrehearsed and the sound system was ill-equipped to handle the excessive decibels they were putting out. Still, Dylan was defiant.

The trucker-hatted kids baking out in the cheap seats at Coachella will likely be just as unkind to Oberst's efforts to change his spots, but history will applaud the bravery of the intention, if not the hamfistedness of the execution. With the possible exception of "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)"--with deft programming by the Postal Service's Jimmy Tam-borello--Oberst sounds miscast amid Digital Ash's skittering electro-blips and sine-wave squiggles.

The lesson here is that point-and-click music isn't as easy as it sounds. Like the guitar, it takes years of patient study to figure out where to point and when to click, or like jazz, where not to point and when not to click. While some wags are already calling Digital Ash Bright Eyes' Kid A, I rate it a Kid C-.

Thankfully, Digital Ash is being released concurrently with I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, wherein Oberst crystallizes in 10 precious songs everything his admirers have been hyperventilating about all these years. Even better, he may have achieved the unprecedented--making both the best and the worst albums of the year.

Oberst's been releasing music for public consumption pretty much since the day he got pubic hair, but even his closest friends and collaborators concede he's only turned the corner from overprolific prodigy to heir-apparent-to-some-mighty-big-shoes in the last couple years, in the days after 2002's breakout Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.

The sonic strategy on Wide Awake is similar--a folk-rock orchestra of friends (including Emmylou Harris and My Morning Jacket's Jim James) twang and swoon over Oberst's ultravivid ramblin'-man travelogues and moonlit whisper-to-a-scream introspection. But the results far surpass anything he's previously put to tape.

Awake starts with a plane crash, turns up at an antiwar rally, stays up all night doing drugs with a pretty girl, gets lost in Brooklyn waiting for the apocalypse, sings "glory, glory" from the rooftops, then heads out on the open road aboard Jack Nicholson's camper in About Schmidt, crisscrossing "the billion highways and the cities at the break of dawn" only to wind up at the gates of the White House with Michael Moore and the mothers of dead Iraq war soldiers, leading a chant of, "No one's sure how all of this got started, but we're gonna make 'em goddamn certain how it's gonna end!"

Oberst's voice still trembles so we feel--really feel--his intensity, but this time when he screams, it doesn't sound like a tantrum--it sounds righteous.

"I was a postcard, I was a record, I was a camera until I went I blind," he sings on "Train Under Water," and without having to raise his voice or resort to that overused vibrato, he grabs you by the lapels and makes you feel like time has stopped.

That's pretty heavy, especially for a 24-year-old. Of course, that's about how young Robert Zimmerman was back when he was the old Dylan.


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