Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Jaan Uhelszki
02/14/2005 | San Francisco Chronicle | Feature
Forget everything you know about Bright Eyes -- which probably isn't that much. Even though he's released a dozen albums of uncommon insight, detail and political awareness over the past decade, 24-year-old Conor Oberst just might be better known for his fragile good looks and soulful, water spaniel eyes.

You could blame the gross misconception of Oberst's true talents on his reputation as an indie heartthrob and the inches he's racked up in gossip columns after a photograph of him kissing Winona Ryder in a parking lot appeared in People magazine two years ago, but it's much more likely he just prefers to be misunderstood.

To show you how much, on "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," the more electric of the two albums he released last month (the other is the folky "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning"), Oberst has inscribed a poem in invisible ink on the CD sleeve.

"I'll tell you a secret," Oberst says in a hushed voice from his New York apartment, like some competing musician might be eavesdropping, poised to steal his genius. "When we were doing the artwork for the 'Digital Ash' record and were putting the dedications inside, we decided to make part of the package glow in the dark. It's kind of s -- glow-in-the-dark print, so you have to hold it up to a light to read it. I put one of my poems on this page, too, but you're going to have to hold it to a light and then run in your closet real quick if you want to read it."

There's something equally inscrutable and glancing about Oberst's lyrics. His trembling voice and anxious poetry obscure as much as they reveal -- quick warnings and aphorisms, like a modern-day Ben Franklin penning his own Poor Richard's Almanac for Generation Y. Take the understated outburst on "Gold Mine Gutted," in which he cautions, "You think about yourself too much/ You'll lose the one you love." On the fretful "Ship in a Bottle," he sighs, "The worm in my heart is the apple of your eye/ Don't adore what is impossible." And in "Arc of Time," he reveals his own divided iconoclasm with the promise, "If you make friends with Jesus Christ/ You'll get up from that chalk outline," simultaneously invoking Catholicism and "Law and Order" reruns. This attention to detail, sense of social responsibility and portentous writing style have led critics and fans to call him the Bob Dylan for the modern age -- something he shrugs off as easily as the ripped gray cotton hoodie he routinely wears. "I don't see myself as that," he says in rather injured tones. "I'm not anyone's role model, and I don't want to be anyone except myself."

Despite his protests, he has become a spokesperson for young rage, ranting on "Road to Joy" -- cribbing licks from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" -- on "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning": "When you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing/ It's best to join the side that's going to win." It's that same impulse that led Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe to invite Oberst to join last year's Vote for Change tour, something that gave him more than a moment of pause and a crippling panic attack on the first day of the tour.

Oberst is no stranger to demons -- his lyrics are replete with references to death, drunken blackouts, ghosts and his own nightmares. Then there was that propitious day in December 2000 when he downed an entire magnum of Irish whiskey to drown the panic attacks that starting coming on without warning, his heart racing like a thoroughbred, making him feel, he says, as if he were going to pass out or die on the spot.

Antidepressants helped a little, but not as much as he had hoped, mainly because he refused to stop drinking, something he grapples with on "Digital Ash's" "Hit the Switch."

Curiously shy in his speech, Oberst unfurls his neuroses with little hesitation, documenting his struggles and even painting himself as something of a self-absorbed narcissist. "Yeah, I get 'pretentious' a lot. I always read that in my reviews," he says, laughing.

But it's that unwavering honesty and hyper-awareness that cause fans to idolize the slight singer, following him around his East Village neighborhood, pressing stuffed animals on him at shows, cornering him in coffee shops, bars, bookstores, even local museums, because they feel they know him.

Why? Because Oberst sings from the inside out, stripping himself naked in his songs, giving voice to not only his but also the fans' greatest secrets and even greater fears. Fantasy fiction has been dedicated to the winsome singer as well as gushing blogs. One fan created a pen-and-ink drawing of Oberst rendered completely in his song lyrics. He graces the pages of Jane and Elle, where the publications demand to know what he looks for in a girlfriend, or whether he's a fan of briefs or boxers. He's not saying.

Despite its English-major mouthful of a title, his 2002 disc, "Lifted: Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground," made a very respectable showing on the Billboard 200, selling more than 180,000 copies -- almost unheard of in the indie world -- and garnering fans in high places, including Lou Reed, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and J.T. Leroy (who penned his bio).

Conor Oberst might be called a walking contradiction. Everything about him is paradoxical, from the fact that he was brought up in America's beef belt yet is a staunch vegetarian to his picketing and filming commercials for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals while acknowledging his fear of large dogs.

And then there's the name of his band. Why would a singer with profoundly bad eyesight name his band Bright Eyes? Could be optimism -- he did have laser surgery last year and now views the world much more clearly, literally if not metaphorically.

"My songs always focus on salvation through music and love and that kind of stuff. Even when I'm writing what is a pretty depressing number -- and I know I sometimes write depressing stuff -- I like to try to sew some silver lining into it. I always make sure there's sort of a point where something pulls you out of the hole that you're in. After all, my motto is 'It's only life.' Even if I am afraid of dying."


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