Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Kimberly Chun
01/19/2005 | San Francisco Bay Guardian | www.sfbg.com | Album Review
In an era when double albums clock in as predictable vanity projects right up there with CD-DVD packages, tell-all rockumentaries, and reality TV series doesn't the release of two fairly stylistically divergent albums on the same day, by one artist, seem like the ultimate I-could-care-less-but-I-can-do-it-all act of one-upmanship? And why are flyover zone-bred city-country mice like Lambchop and now Bright Eyes resorting to these tactics? Are red-state denizens preparing to throw a crunk stick into the mix?

And which to acquire first? Against the grain, I'd pick Digital Ash in a Digital Urn because, really, would Conor Oberst's quivering voice ever make it to tape, hard drive, and plastic disc, if not for Robert Smith's? Look at his Bright Eyes as the latest in a long line of rubbed-raw, too-sensitive, and nervy goths in black sheep's clothing, and Oberst's more baldly artificial, synth-shrouded Digital Ash in a Digital Urn easily trumps the folkier I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.

Sorry, but the simultaneous release begs this kind of taste-test comparison. In contrast, Wide Awake seems far too familiar, more than 40 years along from Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and their ilk, with its beat storytelling ("Lua"), Emmylou Harris harmonies ("We Are Nowhere and It's Now"), and "travelin' " songs ("Another Travelin' Song") all lovely and ready-made for a swing-states tour with Bruce Springsteen and flirting with self-important signifiers that scream, "Important, authentic statement coming in on runway two, straight from the really real world of Omaha, Neb." Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, on the other hand, sounds like the backing track for the rock-unsteady adventures of a happy, thoughtful, and slightly morbid robot. It bristles with scratchy textures and shaky beats on the single "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" and bounces with synthetic, splotchy keys and painterly percussion on "Hit the Switch." "But it's all I'm doing now / Listening for patterns in the sound / Of an endless static sea," Oberst intones amid an electric storm, the steady splatter of OMD-ish beats, and the sampled screams on "Easy/Lucky/Free." Classic pop songwriting, crickets, and some real feeling are built into those uncool decadance rhythms with such strength of will and confidence that you almost believe it's easy, though far from freeing or even a matter of luck.


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