Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Matthew Fritch
01/26/2005 | Magnet | | Album Review
In the John Waters film Pecker, a young amateur photographer becomes the darling of the New York art scene after his work—unflinching, close-up images of life in hopelessly mundane Baltimore—is discovered and hailed as "real" and "honest." It's a movie about hype, ambition and raw talent. (OK, it's also a platform for a couple cheap sex jokes.) Omaha singer/songwriter Conor Oberst's own millstone of pithy identifiers ("voice of the Ritalin generation" is among the stupidest) has become heavier, and no doubt he's been pulled in a few different directions, career-wise (indie-folk guardian, pop pin-up, political megaphone). With two new, simultaneously released records, even true believers have to wonder if he'll be stretched thin.

There's plenty of faith to be found on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, a folk-oriented, acoustic-guitar-based album. Opening with a minute-long spoken-word intro (Oberst relates a story about a plane crash) that segues into "At The Bottom Of Everything," one of the record's main themes is put forth: the power of song in times of crisis. With backing vocals from My Morning Jacket's Jim James, it also introduces the second narrative thread, which is the importance of being Oberst and the existential angst of a famous 24-year-old: "I'm happy just because I've found out I am really no one." Musically, Wide Awake is full of inventive, successful ideas. Oberst's vocals are paired with those of Emmylou Harris on three songs, and it sounds like two ageless souls commiserating. On closing track "Road To Joy" (which nicks its melody from Beethoven's "Ode To Joy"), the ecstatic trumpet calls and crashing drums remind us that Oberst is more inspired by Jeff Mangum than Bob Dylan. By a country, city or suburban mile, Wide Awake is Bright Eyes' finest hour.

The bubbly synth pop of Digital Ash In A Digital Urn is a bratty, impetuous kid sister to Wide Awake. Nobody's denying Oberst's right to match his hangdog voice to retro-'80s toy keyboards and skittish, processed beats; everybody's doing it, after all. But there hasn't been this much lack of chemistry since the Middle Ages. Songs such as "Hit The Switch" portray a bored, overstimulated party life (Oberst has been living in New York City for the past year). Some playful alchemy occurs on "I Believe In Symmetry," which borrows a riff from "99 Red Balloons," but Digital Ash is ultimately as much fun as dry-heaving to OMD. As one astute character in Pecker puts it, "What they call art up in New York, young man, looks like just plain misery to me."