Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Sasha Frere-Jones
01/31/2005 | New Yorker | www.newyorker.com | Feature
There are three things that people often say about Conor Oberst, the singer, songwriter, an only permanent member of the band Bright Eyes. One is that he started his musical caree when he was thirteen. Another is that he is th new Bob Dylan. And the third is that he is not unpopular with the women who attend hi shows. Oberst did begin recording at thirteen and he was touring three years later, while stil in high school and living with his parents i Omaha, Nebraska. Oberst's own label, Saddl Creek, which he formed with his brother and friend when he was seventeen, has seized o his youth as a promotional asset. A sticker o the 2002 album "Lifted or The Story Is in th Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground" declared, "Conor Oberst owns a voice that quakes wit the tumultuous energy that only youth ca produce.

This isn't just sales talk. At the age of twenty-four, Oberst is delicate and skinny, with the long face and rumpled corduroys of someone who is preparing to be fifteen forever. Many of his songs—there are already more than a hundred—deal with the states of high dudgeon that are native to teen-agers everywhere: extreme heartbreak, extreme moral disapproval, extreme sadness. His wobbling voice and overstuffed couplets call to mind late-night dorm-room epiphanies, those moments when, drunk on cheap wine and the excitement of a new crush, you realize that nobody means anyone else any good, that companies care only about profit, but that you and me, babe, we can make it through the night—though I will probably be shoving off in the wee morning light. Babe.

This sense of being let down by the world at a young age may remind people of Dylan. Or maybe the comparison came about because Oberst plays an acoustic guitar and sings songs with lots of words, sometimes in Dylan's cadence. In fact, Oberst is not very much like Dylan, but the differences between them are instructive. Dylan is armor-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion. Dylan gives voice to thoughts so dense that he himself might not understand them all; Oberst is content to tackle hope and heartbreak—and, increasingly now, politics—in accessible, occasionally sententious language. Dylan fled the Midwest and invented a person who seemed to come from nowhere; Oberst moved to an apartment in the East Village a year and a half ago but still spends a third of his time in Omaha, where Saddle Creek is based. He talks freely to reporters and is exactly as charming as the girls who scream "I love you, Conor!" hope he is. Oberst has not transformed rock music. (If there were a "new Bob Dylan," he would make people uncomfortable right away, attack the world with a pickaxe, and refuse to say he's sorry. He would probably not be a musician.) Oberst is simply more talented, and more prolific, than the average songwriter.

Last week, Bright Eyes released "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," the band's fifth and sixth albums. "I'm Wide Awake," the stronger of the two, was recorded quickly, with some songs done live in one take, and generally resembles Oberst's earlier work. "Digital Ash," which was created using a combination of electronic sources (such as keyboards and programmed samples) and traditional instruments, represents something of a departure. On both albums, the songs move at a fairly brisk pace and shy away from grand pronouncements. It's a blessing that Oberst has cut back on fortune-cookie lines like "Your eyes must do some raining if you are ever going to grow" (from "Lifted"). But platitudes are an occupational hazard for a songwriter who specializes in gauging the human heart. If Oberst sometimes mistakes his private turmoil for the universal condition, it is not simply because he is young; he understands that pop songs need to overstate the case, to howl, to make a moment last because there might not be another like it. The outsize emotions are still there, but now they're delivered in a more compressed, catchier form.

Two songs from the albums, "Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," were released as singles last November. Within a week, they were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Sales chart, an uncommon feat for independent rock releases. (The chart is based solely on sales and does not reflect radio play.) "Take It Easy," from "Digital Ash," is taut and upbeat. Oberst is falling in love again: "You took off your clothes, left on the light. You stood there so brave. You used to be shy." But in the next verse his lover leaves him a note: "Don't take it so bad, it is nothing you did. It is just once something dies you can't make it live. You are a beautiful boy. You're a sweet little kid but I am a woman." It's a canny maneuver. Oberst wants us to know that, kid or not, he's getting around, and, at the same time, that he's still as vulnerable as he was when he had to yell in order to speak.

"Lua," from "I'm Wide Awake," is the quietest song on either record, just a very soft guitar and Oberst singing. It is a blue, but not regretful, story of a night that never ends: "Julie knows a party at some actor's West Side loft. Supplies are endless in the evening, by the morning they'll be gone." Just when Oberst begins to sound jaded, he drops the conceit: "When everything is lonely I can be my own best friend. I get a coffee and the paper; have my own conversations with sidewalk and pigeons and my window reflection." He lingers delightfully on the word "conversations," making his banal morning ritual sound as pleasurable as the previous night's adventure.

Last Tuesday, the day the albums were released, Bright Eyes performed the first of three shows at Town Hall. Oberst, in a tight white tennis shirt and sagging jeans, was in an affectionate mood. He whispered with his bandmates, and at one point gently nuzzled his bass player's shoulder. The set was made up almost entirely of songs from "I'm Wide Awake," and Mike Mogis, on pedal-steel guitar, and Nate Walcott, on trumpet, gave the music an unexpectedly big and colorful shape. Midway through the show, the band left the stage, and Oberst performed alone. "I was so moved by the President's inauguration speech last week that I wrote this song," he announced. To the evening's loudest applause, he sang "When the President Talks to God," a fierce synthesis of accusation and repetition which recalled Dylan's early protest songs: "When the President talks to God, does he ever think maybe he's not, that the voice is just inside his head? As he kneels next to the presidential bed, does he ever smell his own bullshit, when the President talks to God?"

The show ended with a rowdy version of "Road to Joy," a song from "I'm Wide Awake" that neatly ties together Oberst's many concerns. Based on the melody of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the song unfolds like a march, even though Oberst seems to be retreating into himself: "I have my drugs. I have my woman. They keep away my loneliness. My parents, they have their religion, but sleep in separate houses." Gradually, his voice falls into step with the music, and his words become harsh and sarcastic: "So when you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing, it's best to join the side that's going to win. And no one's sure how all of this got started, but we're going to make them goddamn certain how it's going to end." Riled, Oberst turns the anger back on himself: "I could have been a famous singer, if I had someone else's voice. But failure's always sounded better, let's fuck it up, boys. Make some noise." The band obliges with a burst of horns and galloping drums. But Oberst knows that the lyric is implausible. After all, he is a famous singer. So, perhaps to convince himself, and his fans, that he's an ordinary guy trying to find his place in the world, he reprises the song's opening lines, this time screaming them: "The sun came up with no conclusions. Flowers sleeping in their beds. The city cemetery's humming. I'm wide awake, it's morning."


This week in the magazine and here online (see The Critics), Sasha Frere-Jones writes about the singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, the leader of the band Bright Eyes, which has just released two new records, "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." Here Frere-Jones talks to Oberst about his work, his influences, and an inopportune meeting with Björk.

SASHA FRERE-JONES: On your records, you sometimes work with a gigantic band. But I'm guessing that you're not a bandleader in the traditional sense. How do you work with large numbers of musicians?

CONOR OBERST: The "Lifted" album, in 2002, was me and the producer Mike Mogis and this other friend of ours, Andy LeMaster. When I'm arranging stuff with Mike, since we don't write out music, I write a lot of parts on keyboard. Then we show the cello part to the cello player, and half of it makes sense and half of it doesn't, and he'll say, "You can't really play that."

Mike is very technical. He deals with every kind of instrument or musical thing, which is kind of strange. But, at the same time, he's not a techie guy. I can describe things to him in the most nonmusical terms, like, "I want this to sound like ice cracking," or "I want this to sparkle," and he'll know.

We have a song on the "Fevers and Mirrors" record, called "When the Curious Girl Realizes She's Under Glass," that I wanted to sound like someone eavesdropping on their neighbor, like, in the next-door apartment. So the whole song is recorded so that it sounds weird and muffled. You can hear the neighbor walking around, and turning on the TV and looking for a station. Anyone who didn't know the idea would probably think it was the most annoying song ever, but, for me, it captured my idea perfectly. There's a song on Björk's record "Début" in which she's in a party and she walks out and closes the door, and she's whispering. And it's just so beautiful. You feel like you're in a closet with her, and you picture it and romanticize it.

Your new album "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" is much more acoustic, though. Was that deliberate?

It was deliberate in that it was very much a reaction to "Lifted." I mean, I'm really glad we did "Lifted," but it became this grandiose project, and there just wasn't a lot of space in it. It was layer upon layer of instruments built up. I wanted a Beach Boys'"Pet Sounds" or a Leonard Cohen's "Death of a Ladies' Man" feel—an immense orchestral wave. But, when that was over, I thought, There's no space in this music; it's too much. My immediate reaction to that was to want to do a record that was just guitar and my voice, with everything stripped down—taking what we were doing live a lot, and going for more of one of those seventies folk records that I like a lot. You know, Neil Young or Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell.

You seem to have an increasing interest in politics.

I didn't used to think about politics much, or social issues. I was a teen-ager, writing about girls. And I still write about girls, but, when George W. Bush got elected in 2000, things kind of changed in my mind, and politics kind of invaded my life. It was scary to me that, even with the little knowledge I had, this person was so fundamentally different from me, this person who was supposed to represent me and be my leader. I was raised Catholic, and I have an aversion to anyone who takes religion to the extreme. And, from what I was reading, it was creepy. We have this freaked-out, evangelical President. At the same time, I was getting more interested in what was happening in Omaha, my home town, in how it is falling apart because the money keeps going further and further west, as they build more and more suburbs and strip malls. I started getting more interested in how society was put together, and I started writing more about that, as opposed to earlier, when I had been focussed on my internal feelings and neuroses. So I started writing about those issues, and watching my home town go further and further away from what could be a really cool culture. You know, it could be left of center but it isn't allowed to be.

Do you ever think about bringing those issues more into Bright Eyes?

I think I have. It started with the Desaparecidos album. We actually recorded that record days after 9/11—that same week. It felt weird—I thought, Is it O.K. to release this anti-American album now? But then I realized that it was the most American thing you can do: dissent and progress. I reconciled that, and then from there it kept coming into Bright Eyes. And I do want my music to be a voice for my convictions and beliefs, but, at the same time, I don't want to turn my music into a commercial for—even if it's a good thing—a non-Bush candidate.

Your vocals never sound smooth—in the best way, I mean. They never sound professional.

It's weird. That's just the way my voice is. It's the most untrained voice you could think of. We came from the school where, you know, we'd play these shows where no one would care, so we'd sing as loud and aggressive as we could to get people to listen to it. It was exaggerated—we put everything we had out there, totally overdoing it every time and having no concept of subtlety.

Who are the people you carry in your emotional iPod?

One of my favorite modern American authors is Denis Johnson. I'm deeply inspired by all of his work—I rip him off constantly. Gabriel García Márquez is one of my all-time favorite writers. I feel spiritual when reading his words, even though they're translated. I wish desperately that I could read it in its original language. I already feel like I'm going to church when I read him; imagine if I could read it in the original. It's the same thing with Björk—her writing is not in her native language. So there are these quirks in her language, and that's endearing, but, for me, it's more the sound of her voice, and the feeling it gives me to hear her sing. Which is also the way it is for me with Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, and Van Morrison. I just hear the sound of their voice and I'm dropped into some beautiful womb, and it's peaceful, and there's warmth all around me.

Do you like Björk's new album, "Medulla"?

Yeah, it reminds me of when I was a kid. My mom has this big Irish family, and we'd have these big parties, and it would get late, and I remember crawling up into my mom's lap and falling asleep, and hearing the sound of her voice and her laughing and everything through her body. And the new Björk album sounds like that to me. It sounds like you're up to her stomach or her chest.

I actually saw her play with my friend Nick, whose band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was opening for her, and it was the most amazing concert. It was so beautiful that I thought, This is making me too happy, I feel like I'm going to split. After the show, we went backstage, and I didn't expect to see her or anything, so we were guzzling vodka, and I was on a bit of a bender, and I passed out. And when I passed out, Björk came backstage, and they had this huge dance party. And I'm passed out. It was the one time when I was really mad at myself for being a drinker. More than with any hangover, I was truly bummed at myself. So when we were walking out, Nick was dragging me out of the dressing room, and we ran right into her, and all I could get out was, "I love you," which is the worst thing you could ever say to someone like that. And right then my friends just picked me up and said, "All right, time to go." That was it. That was my encounter. The next day, I was, like, I could have been so cool and normal.


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