Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Mark Guarino
01/13/2005 | Chicago Daily Herald | Album Review
Golden boy Conor Oberst went from indie wunderkind to sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe in just two years since the release of his 2002 knockout "The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground" (Saddle Creek). The transformation was manifested in his relocation from Omaha, Neb., homebase to his Saddle Creek label, to New York City, a town ruinous to other former rising star sensitives, Ryan Adams in particular.

Rest your worries of Oberst going glam or junkie sheik. On these two separately released new albums, he enlists into Bright Eyes red state outsiders like Emmylou Harris and Jim James of My Morning Jacket although Nick Zinner of New York favorites the Yeah Yeah Yeah's shows up for duty. "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," the country side of this pair, is actually the one with the heaviest New York imprint. It is a newcomer's diary of city romance and late-night adventures, where "what was normal in the evening/by the morning seems insane" ("Lua").

The music is stripped bare to folk guitars, pedal steel ambiance and Harris' ghostly background vocals, a combination no better or worse than anywhere else it's been used. Oberst makes handling his sensitivity sound like a wearier chore than hauling concrete, and the weakest songs here are a bit overripe, faltering to the worst clichés of six-string confessionals.

But Oberst is no ordinary songwriter or singer — when he uncorks, you better duck. "Morning's" glory comes near its end, with songs of dark majesty, swirling chaos and political venom. Capped with a horn incorporating "Taps" into its melody, "Landlocked Blues" sends chills in its update of life during wartime ("we made love on the living room floor/with the noise in the background of a televised war"). His voice's natural vibrato is his secret weapon, especially during red hot flashes that lead to, on "Road to Joy," a complete breakdown. "So when you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing/it's best to join the side that's gonna win!" he cries out before the song — a melody so simple it should be coming from a crib — explodes, then falls to ashes. Meet the angriest angry young man since Joe Strummer.

At the start of "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," make that Thom Yorke. The Radiohead vibe of "Time Code" is made complete with foggy vocals, heavy breathing and drippy non sequiturs ("drink liquid clocks/til I see God"). It's an introduction to the digitized Bright Eyes, an album of industrial rock ("Down a Rabbit Hole"), New Wave loveliness ("I Believe in Symmetry," "Easy/Lucky/Free") and serious studio-created symbolism. That's not a forte of Oberst's new playing field, especially when using loops of crying babies and alarm clocks to make super deep statements.

What's welcome in this album is its laidback electronic vibe, as if he's spent some serious time checking in with singular-named '80s oddities Yaz or Nena (check out how "I Believe in Symmetry" plays second cousin to "99 Luft Balloons").

"Digital Ash" is not as immediately accessible as "Morning," but Oberst sounds more engaged in its new sound, creating much more to mine. The heavy crunch hammers home "Down a Rabbit Hole," accented by Zinner's squalling guitar. On "Take it Easy," Oberst sings atop a bed of spongy beats and on "Arc of Time," the sunny percussion creates a danceable island vibe despite the heady lyrics, obsessing on death and the renewal of reincarnation.

Edited down, the two albums would give Oberst a single disc finally worthy of his fawning press clippings. As it stands, hunting and pecking for standouts is a tougher job, but feel both out and it's likely you'll strike gold.


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