Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Robert Hilburn
12/18/2005 | Los Angeles Times | www.latimes.com | Feature
There were lots of excellent albums during 2005, but only three brilliant
ones: Bright Eyes' "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," Kanye West's "Late
Registration" and the White Stripes' "Get Behind Me Satan."

All three are works of immense ambition and craft, and the reaction to them
has been so extreme -- from near suffocating praise in one case to
considerable puzzlement in another -- that you wonder about the effect of it
all on their creators.

Normally, musicians speak out only after they've moved on and finished their
next album, long after they've digested the reactions to the last one and
come up with new music. But West, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and the Stripes'
Jack White broke the pattern by sitting down this month -- long before they
begin work on albums that they don't expect to be released until 2007 -- to
answer questions about their dramatic years.

And there are lots of questions.

One shared answer: Don't let reaction to the album affect your artistic
direction.

Conor Oberst

In "Wide Awake," Oberst took on the great singer-songwriter tradition of Bob
Dylan with an ambition and youthful vigor that hasn't been seen since the
'70s -- and critics reacted with "masterpiece" notices.

That's a heady experience for a 25-year-old on an indie label (Saddle
Creek). Add to the mix that Oberst's other album this year, the more
experimental rock CD titled "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," met with far
less praise.

He admits the attention and acclaim threw him off balance for a while -- one
reason he did so many shows (about 150) during the year.

"I learned that it's important to stay as close to the music as possible,"
he said by phone from his native Omaha. "It's easy to lose track of who you
are sometimes, but there is always the saving grace of getting on stage and
playing your songs. That's where I always find peace."

So what now?

Will he listen to critics and stay on the folk path? Or try to prove
everyone wrong by continuing in the rock vein?

"It was so strange hearing such different things about the records because
we put just as much time and energy into both of them," he said. "But the
experience definitely gave me some perspective.

"I realize now there is going to be some stuff we do that more people will
relate to and other things that less people will relate to, and that doesn't
make either better or worse. The important thing is that I and [producer
Mike Mogis] feel rewarded by the work.

"The worst thing is to feel like you have to repeat yourself no matter how
successful something turned out."

Oberst has nearly 20 songs at least partly written and expects to write more
before finishing his new album. He wants to go into the studio in spurts,
maybe even different studios to give it more varied textures than the last
two.

"These records were both homogeneous in their own ways," he said. "It would
be nice next time to shoot for something that's a bit more [mixed up],
something that sounds like a mix tape."

Jack White

The Stripes' leader made the most dramatic change of his career in 2005 by
setting down the electric guitar, the trademark sound of the Detroit
blues-rock duo, in favor (mostly) of piano and other instruments to better
express this album's tales of betrayal and lost idealism.

It was a marvelously powerful work that got lots of glowing reviews and
already has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, according to his
management company. But the change of styles clearly confused some critics
and fans, who saw the move from the guitar as a sign that White had simply
run out of ideas with their limited instrumentation. Radio programmers too
have been slower to embrace "Satan."

Any second thoughts on the album?

"I love it," he said by phone from New York, where he and drummer Meg White
were doing TV appearances. "It's probably my second favorite after our first
album, and it's Meg's favorite.

"It showed that there were all these different feelings inside me, different
emotions and different styles. That told us there is still a lot more we can
do as a two-piece."

What did he think, after the Stripes' years as critical darlings, to see
some critics baffled by the duo's change of direction?

"Certain reactions I thought were hilarious," he said. "The New Yorker, for
instance. It kept saying I should have gotten Christina Aguilera to sing on
the album with me. What's that all about? I think there is this idea that
there is some perversion in my brain about wanting to blow things on
purpose, just to shake people up, but I never premeditate that kind of
stuff.

"You can't let other people's feelings determine what you do. It never did
with us, and it never will," White said. "I remember when 'Elephant' came
out, people were comparing it to 'White Blood Cells' and asking where is the
'Fell in Love With a Girl'-type song. Then they got into 'Seven Nation Army'
and they forgot about 'Fell in Love With the Girl.'

"Now, they are saying 'Blue Orchid' is no 'Seven Nation Army,' and when the
next album comes out, they'll say, 'Well, it's not 'Blue Orchid.' "

On the issue of the guitar on the next album, White says it's too early to
even think about it.

"It would be as ridiculous for me to say, 'I'm going to be sure to pick up
the guitar more on the next record' as it would for me to say, 'I'm not
going to touch it' -- just because of some strategy or somebody else's
feelings about the last album.

"I don't even know if it is going to be a rock record or a country record
until I start putting the songs together. The music will tell me what the
record will sound and feel like. Any other consideration just guarantees
you're not going to do something honest."

Kanye West

With "Late Registration," West stuck with the trailblazing path of his 2004
debut, "The College Dropout," again showing you can connect with the hip-hop
audience by speaking about life and community in the tradition of Curtis
Mayfield and other R&B commentators rather than continue down the tired old
road of gangsta rap.

Just as daringly, West set out in the new album to expand the sonic
boundaries of hip-hop by bringing in a string section and other pop
elements.

Given the blockbuster success of "Late Registration" and all West's cocky
talk about changing the face of pop, there's always the fear that the
28-year-old rapper-producer will succumb to self-indulgence in the studio.

"I want to move forward, but that doesn't mean I'm going to go crazy," he
said during a recent visit to Santa Monica High School for a radio
stationsponsored concert for the students.

"That's what messes a lot of rappers up. They get so into themselves that
they lose touch with their audience. Fans like them for one thing and the
rappers start trying to change everything to show how smart or clever they
are.

"Haven't you heard some records where the first thing you think is, 'It
sounds like this guy obviously had too much studio time'? I want to always
keep my audience in mind. I want to make records that entertain and speak
about real life."

Still, he feels he can raise his own creative bar.

"I feel I can make a better record than the first two combined because I've
learned so much in the studio I feel more inspired all the time," he said.

"It's like you are drawing and you suddenly find new pencils, new color
paper, new paints, all the things that can help you be more creative -- and
there's the thrill of a vast audience to paint in front of."

That doesn't mean he no longer struggles in the studio.

"What I love is that you can never capture, onstage or on record or
whatever, everything that is in your mind," he said.

"There's never enough time or money. The challenge is trying to get as close
as you can. Maybe that's what keeps you going as an artist: knowing you'll
never be able to be satisfied with what you've got."


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