Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Martin Bandyke
01/27/2005 | St Louis Post Dispatch | | Album Review
Conor Oberst, 24, the leader of indie-rock band Bright Eyes, is a searingly intense and seriously talented native of Omaha, Neb. His cult-hero status will likely be replaced by widespread fame after these two simultaneously released albums, both filled with deeply personal songs destined to burrow their way into your heart.

"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," which is folk-oriented, and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," which is more electric, are filled with brash energy and neurotic anxiety, Oberst's trademarks since he began recording at the tender age of 13. What amazes is how smart and complex the tunes are, especially for an artist so young. Oberst may do his share of navel-gazing about doomed relationships and the pain of being alive and alone, but by matching his powerful tales of wounded innocence with instantly hummable pop hooks, he rarely fails to grab the listener. He also has a knack for tempering some of his misery with humor - and even a silver-lining sentiment or two, smoothing out the rougher edges of his less-than-sunny worldview.

Oberst's naive, tremulous, occasionally hysterical vocal style can take a bit of getting used to - he sounds somewhat like an over-caffeinated cross between Marc Bolan of T. Rex and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. What wins you over is the unfailing sincerity and first-take freshness of his singing, as on "Lua" from "I'm Wide Awake," his intimate, you-are-there account of dating, drinking and drugging in New York, his home since '02. The song has a wise, embittered romantic stance ("what is simple in the moonlight by the morning never is") that brings to mind some of Lou Reed's finest work with the Velvet Underground. The incomparable Emmylou Harris contributes vocals to three songs on "I'm Wide Awake," including "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," a lovely, sad waltz with haunting touches of mandolin.

As on his many previous releases, Oberst employs a large, rotating cast of musicians who play everything from the standard bass-drums-guitar to trumpet to strings to theremin.

"Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" has edgier instrumentation and production values, such as on the drum-driven "Arc of Time," a paradoxically toe-tappin' tune about the cheery subject of death. "I Believe in Symmetry" is another strong rumination about time passing, filled with pithy observations devoid of self-pity.

Sure, it's natural to be suspicious of a musician who gets a major New York Times Magazine feature while he's still in his early 20s while being dubbed "rock's boy genius" and "the next Bob Dylan." But one solid listen to these two albums will quickly endear you to the sensitive singer with the quaky voice and a pocketful of heavenly songs.


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Cassadaga (Remastered)

Cassadaga (Remastered)

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