Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Matt Schild
02/04/2005 | | | Album Review
In December, in a move that surprised virtually everyone on Earth, a poll of 500 of the world's leading art critics named Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," essentially just a urinal turned on its side signed by the artist, as the most important piece of modern art. Once the furor died down and the toilet humor passed, one thing was clear: In the modern world, creativity and insight are valued more than skill, craft or technique.

For most of his career, critics have launched volleys back and forth, with one side declaring the singer/songwriter a power to rival Bob Dylan as the other faction decries his less-than-amazing voice and his shaky guitar-playing skills. It's the same old song and dance as the controversy over Duchamp's Dadaist leanings and quite virtually the same debate that surrounded punk's enthusiasm-over-technique aesthetic. It's youth against age, change against stagnation, the status quo versus a new age. On what side of the line do you sit?

As Bright Eyes, Oberst has been reinventing the singer/songwriter and acoustic folk milieu most of his professional career, retooling the styles to fit the needs and expectations of a generation that grew to maturity alongside the punk movement. Just like the class of '77 was the first rockers to grow up with television and rock'n'roll, Oberst and his ilk are the first songwriters who've never been without punk's idealism and aesthetic. Punk's influence, if not its sound, slowly crept into everything; long-held notions of songwriting are bound to change.

On I'm Wide Awake It's Morning one of a pair of records Bright Eyes simultaneously released (the other is the electronic Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) he comes closer than ever to perfecting the changeover. Returning to the realms of straightforward acoustic singer/songwriter work he left for 2002's Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek), a scattered affair, Oberst comes back with his most literate and mature album to date. Where chilling depression, substance abuse and generational angst played a key roles in earlier work, on I'm Wide Awake, they slip into background. They're always there, and unquestioningly guide Oberst's songs, but now he focuses on dealing with a life where the specter of drugs, depression, paranoia and anomie are everywhere.

"At the Bottom of Everything" opens the album with Oberst condemning everything that squashes individuality and hope, from religion to overactive materialism, as a mandolin gives the track a country or bluegrass feel. The rest of the record's spent developing intimate snapshots of twentysomething life, from a guitar-and-voice look at self-destructive stupidity ("Lua") to a night spent wiling the way hours in a bar ("We Are Nowhere and It's New") to a couple uncharacteristically optimistic and brief, but cuttingly telling moments from a pair of lovers' lives ("First Day of My Life"). Of course, Oberst still waxes poetic about the unbearable weight of identity ("Land Locked Blues"), the weight of 9/11 tragedies ("Old Soul Song (For a New World Order)" and, in a surprisingly trite bit re-appropriation of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the hopeless feeling that comes from watching war afar ("Road to Joy").

Oberst's many supporters would love nothing more than to cast him as the indie generation's answer to Bob Dylan. Similarly, his critics see his records as nothing more than sloppy and trite. Neither are correct views. Oberst can't be our generation's Dylan, no more than Joe Strummer was his generation's John Lennon, Paul McCartney was the Buddy Holly of the early '60s or Kurt Cobain was grunge's Elvis Presley. There is no analog; Oberst is, by all measures, of a new generation with a new mindset with a new agenda, outlook and voice that shines through on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. As old Bobby Dylan once said, time they are a changin', and to measure Bright Eyes by any other measure is simply folly. In echoes of Duchamp's 90-year-old masterpiece, Oberst shows artistry is still about feeling, insight and passion more than technique.