Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
The Nebraska-bred singer better known as Bright Eyes went everywhere, man. He moved to New York; flew to Nashville to record with Emmylou Harris; started an Internet-based music label called Team Love; and toured with the anti-Bush Vote for Change campaign in the fall with R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen, who gave him a flea-market jacket as a souvenir.
Then, in November, Bright Eyes became the first artist since Puff Daddy in 1997 to have songs in the top two spots on the Billboard singles chart simultaneously.
The media tend to exaggerate that last achievement, as the gossip mills did when a shot of Oberst kissing Winona Ryder surfaced in 2003 (it was a friendly buss, he says, and they never dated). The chart in question measures only purchases; since practically no one really buys singles, first-week sales to hard-core fans were enough to earn the double-header. The primary Billboard chart factors in radio play, an arena where Bright Eyes poses no threat to Avril Lavigne as yet.
Oberst's songs would fall as awkwardly as soliloquies from Hamlet between the mall-rat anthems on rock radio today. Indeed, they mimic Shakespearean self-interrogations, pinballing from hubris to humiliation, from extended metaphor to explicit obscenity, in verses that overflow their rhyme schemes and choruses that often forget to arrive. The music rests on punky folk-rock that fans of both Neil Young and Green Day might embrace, but beware -- harps, organs, horns and parade drums are apt to erupt any minute.
The two November singles were a tease for this week's unveiling of two distinct Bright Eyes albums, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. They are his first full-lengths since 2003's Lifted, whose 200,000 sales were startling for a record on Saddle Creek, the indie label he founded at 14 with Omaha friends.
The new discs were heralded on Sunday with a front-page New York Times arts-section review (following a breathless Times Magazine profile of Oberst two years ago), and similarly reverent treatment elsewhere. There will be tours and videos for each album, with a break in the spring to open for R.E.M. in Europe, and the cries of "boy genius" and "new Dylan" from the likes of Rolling Stone magazine are unlikely to abate.
And so are the catcalls. In September, a St. Louis paper nominated Oberst one of the Ten Most Hated Men in Rock. This year no doubt it will get even hipper to denounce the new discs as either (a) more whining Oberst self-indulgence, which the speaker "always hated," or (b) a sellout of his sensitive prairie solitude, which the complainant "used to love."
If being Conor Oberst seems an exhausting proposition, you're right: The common theme of both albums is not getting any sleep. Digital Ash is a night-prowler's suite, bedevilled by death and the vast cosmos, with an insomniac synthesizer mewling like no Bright Eyes album before. I'm Wide Awake takes place amid sunlit bedrooms, protest marches and hangovers at dawn, set to acoustic guitars and Emmylou Harris harmonies. On one, Oberst risks waking up as a cockroach; on the other, sunrise might find him turned into a real boy.
I'm not sure what to make of this sudden compartmentalization of his bipolar sensibility -- except that in its way of getting us talking, it's another phase in his main metamorphosis, from cult indie crush to bona-fide rock star.
Most critics, who prefer I'm Wide Awake, overestimate Oberst the writer, who has plenty of gifted rivals, and underrate Conor the performer, who holds his own beside the far-out vocal expressionists of hip-hop. Yes, he yelps and howls less here, in more formally balanced songs. But calling that "maturity" seems like pressuring van Gogh to go easier on the colour.
Oberst usually undermines his own confessions, vocally and verbally, showing that his excesses are more theatrical than therapeutic. In art, unlike life, extremism of thought and feeling is no vice. For that I bless the messiness of Digital Ash, which restores ridiculous Goths such as the Cure to their rightful place among Bright Eyes' ancestors; as the ghost in Hamlet cries, "Remember me."
The transformations of Conor Oberst are far from over. I do regret that both discs contain less protest than he's hinted at. As on Lifted, which may have been rock's fullest encapsulation of post-9/11 anxiety, he mixes personal and political, but not as fiercely as in concert staples such as When the President Talks to God. A genuinely mature Bright Eyes album would explore the wilderness of the world more than the Importance of Being Oberst -- but then again, is that what rock stars are for?
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3