Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Dan DeLuca
01/23/2005 | Philadelphia Inquirer | www.philly.com | Feature
When Conor Oberst, who performs as Bright Eyes, played the Trocadero a year ago, a worshipful crowd of sensitive young people stood rapt at attention, sighing each time the guitarist's voice got caught in his throat.

Eight months later, Oberst was back in Philadelphia with the Vote for Change tour at the Wachovia Center, playing before a crowd of Bruce Springsteen-loving old people, most of whom had no idea who Bright Eyes was. The floppy-haired singer shook his maracas and, alongside Spring-steen and Michael Stipe, poured his idealistic heart into anthems like Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."

With the two Bright Eyes albums that come out Tuesday on his Saddle Creek label, Oberst stakes his claim as a major artist - and goes after both demographics. He'll let loose the boomer-friendly, acoustic troubadour tour de force I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning(***1/2), which he'll focus on when he plays the Academy of Music on Friday, and the more experimental Digital Ash in a Digital Urn(** 1/2).

He's aiming to cement his bond with ardent fans who already adore him, and woo a broader audience as yet unaware there's an ambitious new Midwestern kid in town with bushels of songs about God and love and growing up - one who's already had the "indie Bob Dylan" albatross hung around his neck.

With Oberst's clenched jaw and big brown eyes staring from the pages of countless publications this month, it would seem that Bright Eyes is an overnight media-saturation story.

Though Oberst is only 24, his back story extends more than a decade. He released his first album, as the lead singer for the band Commander Venus, when he was 13, and still a Jesuit junior high school student in Omaha, Neb. Since then, there's been a steady stream of Bright Eyes albums, singles and EPs.

Fevers & Mirrors, in 2000, was an artistic breakthrough. Two years later the difficult but dazzling Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, with its layered production and angsty-but-insightful heart-on-sleeve narratives, blew up the Bright Eyes cult, selling 250,000 discs without commercial radio play.

The rise of Bright Eyes, which consists of Oberst and whomever he happens to be playing with at the time, coincides with that of emo, the do-it-yourself punk-rock offshoot of hard-to-tell-apart bands fronted by yearning boys singing about how they really feel.

But Oberst, who attended the University of Nebraska for three semesters, is too much of a heartland folkie to fit into the emo pigeonhole. Along with other hyper-articulate acts such as Death Cab for Cutie - which, like Bright Eyes, is a favorite of Seth Cohen, the music-loving teenager on the Fox TV soap The O.C.- Oberst is like an emo act for A.P. English-class students.

His literary ambitions are apparent in the Dylanesque word-slinging in Wide Awake's opening, "Bottom of Everything (We Must Sing)": "While my mother waters plants, my father loads his gun/He says death will give us back to God, just like the setting sun... ."

The title of the next song, "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," one of three tracks to feature Emmylou Harris on beatific harmonies, alludes to journalist H.L. Mencken's words: "We are here, and it is now. Beyond that, all human knowledge is moonshine." And "Gold Mine Gutted," the first proper song on Digital- both albums begin with unnecessary intros, a trademark pretension Bright Eyes has yet to shake - finds our romantic hero alone: "It was Don DeLillo, whiskey neat, and a blinking midnight clock/Speakers on a TV stand, just a turntable to watch."

The Bright Eyes buzz built steadily through 2004. Oberst, who told Harp magazine that he's been in a relationship with Maria Taylor of the band Azure Ray, nonetheless wound up in People magazine kissing serial rock-poet dater Winona Ryder.

After the Vote for Change tour raised his profile, the Conorians' zeal for new Bright Eyes material pushed a double-sided single released in November - Wide Awake's brittle ballad "Lua" and Digital's break-up song "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)"- to the top two positions on Billboard's Hot 100 singles sales chart.

All of which means that the double dose of Bright Eyes arrives this week freighted with big-time expectations.

Wide Awakelives up to them. It's the fully realized, country-flavored effort of a young man wide-eyed to the wonders of the big city - Oberst moved to New York's East Village last year - even when romantic crises and a turbulent world seem too much for his tremulous quaver to stand up to.

Digitalis a less successful though sometimes sparkling experiment that finds Oberst's voice growing thin and reedy on ambitious, unfocused songs in a quasi-electronic setting he never sounds entirely comfortable in.

The albums are both about the age-old quest to define the self, and deliberately place Oberst in the tradition of his heroes from, yes, Dylan to Robert Smith of the Cure.

There are enough drinking songs for a honky-tonk jukebox: Bright Eyes is lured toward his "favorite neon sign" in "We Are Nowhere" and attacks his vodka with a straw in Digital's "Hit the Switch," before flaying himself for his own hypocrisy.

"Lua" - Portuguese for moon - is a Wide Awakestandout. It's a gorgeously simple tale of a night out on the town that distills the disappointment of moonlit dreams that disappear in the morning light. "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)," starts off as a gentle, pedal-steel-guitar-cushioned account of a Manhattan antiwar demonstration, then soars with a swelling string arrangement. And the finger-picked "First Day of My Life" sweetly captures the optimism of new love.

Digital, for which Oberst plans a separate tour later this year with the Faint as his backup band, mixes programmed beats with the work of musicians like longtime collaborator Mike Mogis and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner.

When it works, it does so gloriously, as on the ironically upbeat "Light Pollution," about a friend who dies in a car crash, or "I Believe in Symmetry," where the techno backdrop suits Oberst's alienation. The album echoes the digitized sound of the Postal Service, the side project of Death Cab's Ben Gibbard.

But Oberst is not as agile a singer or skilled a pop song writer as Gibbard. And when Digitalturns murky and dreary, his fascination with his own psyche grows wearying.

Expecting one singer-songwriter to simultaneously deliver two albums as rich and cohesive as Wide Awakeis probably too much to ask, even for a boy wonder so obviously talented. But the nervy ambition it took to attempt such a feat only whets the appetite for what might come next. Digitalmay get lost in the darkness, but for Oberst, the future looks bright.


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