I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
waiting all that time for what's great. It has finally arrived.
Bright Eyes' new acoustic album is the most absorbing singer-songwriter
collection since Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind" eight years ago -- and it
is, in some ways, an answer to that landmark work.
In "Time," Dylan began the final chapter in his career-long portrait of a
generation's dreams. The most compelling moments of Bright Eyes' new CD feel
like the opening chapter of a new generation's search. Even the title
conveys a sense of youthful determination and discovery: "I'm Wide Awake,
That doesn't mean Bright Eyes -- which consists of 24-year-old Conor Oberst
and whatever musicians are with him at the moment -- is deliberately tracing
someone else's footsteps. Oberst is an immensely gifted songwriter with his
own vision and goals.
But many listeners may see a parallel between what Oberst is doing now and
what was laid down in such landmark albums as "Bringing It All Back Home"
and "Blonde on Blonde" in the '60s: examining the political and cultural
landscape of their times with unusual insight and eloquence.
In "I'm Wide Awake," one of two separate Bright Eyes CDs due Jan. 25 from
Saddle Creek Records (the other is a rock 'n' roll album that will be
reviewed later), Oberst is a man on a mission, battling with urgency against
the cynicism and indifference he sees. The opening song, "At the Bottom of
Everything," underscores his belief in taking a stand on issues of the day:
We must take all of the medicines too expensive now to sell.
Set fire to the preacher who is promising us hell.
Into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn't dream
We must sing, we must sing, we must sing.
Much of Dylan's most influential work in the '60s was fueled by the
confidence and independence that came from being part of a generation filled
with a sense of destiny. By 1997, however, Dylan was nearing 60, and the
future no longer seemed unlimited. "It's not dark yet, but it's getting
there," he warned in "Time Out of Mind."
Oberst has no illusions about the future. In "I'm Wide Awake," he goes
between supreme confidence and a sense of helplessness, rage and compassion,
sometimes placing apocalyptic visions alongside hopeful ones. In "We Are
Nowhere and It's Now," he asks, "Why are you scared to dream of God, when
it's salvation that you want?"
An Omaha native who now divides his time between there and New York City,
Oberst has been making records since his teens and progressed fast enough to
make lots of critical "best of" lists by the time of 2002's "Lifted ..."
That 73-minute Bright Eyes CD was filled with so many dazzling images and
rhymes you felt you were being overwhelmed. Still, there were enough flashes
of brilliance to make you endure the excesses.
In "I'm Wide Awake," Oberst pares the music. The songs, about relationships
and self-discovery, are still ambitious, but they are more accessible,
compact and blessed with melodies that you'll find yourself humming after
just a few hearings.
The arrangements are seasoned by warm folk and country textures, employing
such instruments as mandolin, organ and steel guitar. Emmylou Harris, the
most evocative female singer ever in country music, and My Morning Jacket's
Jim James contribute backing vocals.
Purpose of the search
"ANOTHER Travelin' Song" is the album's most immediately appealing tune,
aglow with the guitar-driven energy of Paul Simon's "Graceland" and the
tension of a Johnny Cash train song.
There have been thousands of traveling songs, and the best are engaging
because there's something universal about the theme of restlessness and
adventure and the open road. In the song, Oberst goes beyond the glamour of
the road to suggest that the real purpose of all the search is to find an
inner comfort and identity.
"Lua" and "First Day of My Life" are looks at love from quite different
points. The first is a minimalist tale of struggling against overpowering
temptation. Backed by his own guitar, Oberst paints a picture so naked that
his voice rarely rises above a whisper:
I got a flask inside my pocket
We can share it on the train
And if you promise to stay conscious
I will try and do the same.
We might die from medication
But we sure killed all the pain.
What was normal in the evening
By the morning seems insane.
"First Day of My Life," by contrast, is so delicate and sweet you want to
wrap your arms around it, and Oberst's lean, endearing vocal captures the
longing and vulnerability of every line.
Oberst, who shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and R.E.M.
during the recent "Vote for Change" tour opposed to President Bush's
reelection, can't go far in his music without reflecting on the anxiety of
the age. There are several references to the Iraq war, some subtle and some
In "Landlocked Blues," a blistering look at greed and hypocrisy, a
television in the background reports on the war while a couple make love on
the living room floor.
The war surfaces again in "Road to Joy," the album's closing number, in
which Oberst talks about moral choices and personal sacrifice with a
provocativeness and striking literary flair:
I read the body count out of the paper.
And now it's written all over my face.
No one ever plans to sleep out in the gutter
Sometimes that's just the most comfortable place.
It's uncomfortable and maybe even unfair to make so many comparisons to
rock's most celebrated songwriter. At the same time, Dylan's music set a
standard of excellence that remains a challenge to every songwriter who
picks up a guitar. No one in years has come as close to answering that
challenge as this other angelic-looking young man from the Midwest.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3