Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Joe Gross
02/13/2005 | Cox News Service | Album Review
Conor Oberst is a very good songwriter saddled with the pressures of a great one. He has been releasing his own albums of achy-breaky folk since he was 13. But since 2002's remarkably successful "Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground," Oberst, with his floppy hair, cracking voice and busted heart, has become the songwriter upon whom hipsters' favor rests.

But now he's even bigger than that, moving from indie rock obscurity to sharing last year's "Vote For Change" arena tour of swing states with R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen. Saddle Creek, the Omaha, Neb., record label he founded and remains with, has evolved into a true market force. The first two singles from "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" _ the scary drug ballad "Lua" and "Take It Easy," respectively _ went to No. 1 and No. 2 on the Billboard Single Sales Chart. It's the first time since P. Diddy held down those slots in 1997, a year that he dominated popular culture, that one artist has done that.

In a heartening gesture, he's refused to play cities where all major venues are controlled by Clear Channel Promotions, which does not include Austin, where he plays La Zona Rosa on Tuesday. He even knows a good riff when he wails one: 2002's "Read Music/Speak Spanish" by his rock band side project Desaparecidos is his most consistent album.

The kid has some game.

Which doesn't make releasing two separate albums on the same day a hot idea. This didn't really work for superstars such as Guns N' Roses, or, for that matter, Springsteen. Only overinflated expectations _ or a willingness to overlook an artist truly not caring about how much material he puts out there _ excuses such excess.

That said, there's one excellent album buried in here. "Wide Awake" doesn't drift too far from Oberst's previous folk-rock style, while "Digital Ash" folds electronic music in his songwriting, with wildly varied results.

Oberst's rickety voice is murder on his already shaky sense of song structure, but his sense of drama is spotless. (It would be fascinating to hear these tunes fleshed out by Nashville pros.) "Wide Awake" feels like a tale of pure bottoming out. "Lua" tries to find solace in narcotics, while Emmylou Harris stops by to harmonize on (and frankly, kind of ruin) songs of slow parades and figuring out that "We're Are Nowhere and It's Now." (Per her relationship with the late Gram Parsons, she knows a floppy-haired meal ticket when she sees one.)

The triumphant closer, "Road to Joy," parks a string of aphorisms in a funny Beethoven rip that feels like true catharsis. Which means getting his marbles back: "When you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing/it's best to join the side that's going to win," he screams. Anger and cynicism has never sounded so like relief.

"Digital Ash" is the more exploratory of the two albums, which means more misfires, but it also means higher highs. "Ash" is the day after the big bender, when our hero realizes with a start that he's not dead, so he might as well get his pal, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' guitarist Nick Zinner, to stop by and help him rock. The first few songs are pure hangover music, glitchy and cranky, but when Zinner kicks in like a good pal should, Oberst finds a fresh groove. "Hit the Switch," "Devil in the Details" and "Easy/Lucky/Free" all shimmer and glow with a New Wave sheen that somehow sounds more do-it-yourself than the acoustic strum on "Wide Awake."

Oberst is at a delicate point in his career, in his art and possibly his liver. He can be subsumed by hype and flail like too many before him, or he can ignore it, keep his own counsel and continue on his terms. And these two albums are definitely on his terms, which might be the definition of ambition nosing out execution. But hey, isn't that what being 24 is all about?


Releases

All »

The People's Key

The People's Key

LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3


Merch

All »

Record

apparel