Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Keith Harris
01/13/2005 | Village Voice | www.villagevoice.com | Feature
Age has its privilege. Wizening away here on the wrong side of 30, I'm
totally free not to hate Conor Oberst. When, some 10 to 15 years back, I
huffily interpreted the lyrical excesses of doomed and gorgeous boypoets as
assaults upon my own earthier yet misunderstood sensibility (in other words,
when my personal stake in policing the lusts of scenegirl cuties was
greater), I'd have cackled at the Sting-unworthy "So you nurse your
love/Like a wounded dove/In the covered cage of night." Now I just want to
hug the kid spindling that simile.

I'm not alone among the aged. After a decade of nurturing the maternal
instinct in cardigan-clad college radio sweethearts, Oberst now renders
their dads avuncular. And don't he just know it. However viscerally Conor
hates Bush, rubbing shoulders with Stipe and Springsteen on the Vote for
Change tour was savvy. Already New Dylan-imated in the Times magazine,
currently playing schmancy concert halls, inevitably to endure stultifying
discussions about "the creative process" with Terry Gross, he now cements
his status as youth culture's apostle to the middlebrow with I'm Wide Awake,
It's Morning, a handsome channel 13 complimentary tote bag of an album that
polishes his image as the fantasy rebellious son who hangs at socialist
bookstores and swipes your Gram Parsons records.

Released simultaneously with the broodier "electronic" Digital Ash in a
Digital Urn, the "acoustic" Wide Awake is Conor in voice-of-a-generation
mode, with Emmylou croaking harmony to provide bearings for the Quality Rock
crowd. Though hardly homogenized, past indulgences have grown stately:
Dylan-cribbed verse-verse-verse structures unroll rather than stagger;
ungainly "Hey, my roommate's girlfriend has a French horn!" squawks fade
into distant fanfares. And throughout Conor contextualizes leftover
adolescent death fixation amid the carnal stench of current events:
dissolving a protest march into slow motion on "Old Soul Song,"
deconstructing pacifist wisdom even as he weaves it into the everyday on
"Land Locked Blues," or just obliquely bleating "When you're asked to fight
a war that's nothing/It's best to join the side that's gonna win."

But with "folk" redefined among those in the know as kiddies making zoo
noises or as harp-happy elfinkind, caustic earnestness can sound just too
too Ani. And so the beat-conscious Digital Ash is partly Conor Postal
Servicing younger fans. Sometimes, though, it's the electro-goth Cure record
Trent Reznor thankfully never produced. And sometimes it's a morose Rain
Dogs: The Early Years


, featuring Nick Zinner as Bob Quine. And consistently it centers around
the admission "I'm thinking of quitting drinking again." On both discs,
Oberst seems wedged between a spirituality he fears will cure his
restlessness and a drunkenness he's too smart to romanticize. The wistful
misery of Wide Awake offers more balanced insight ("And if you swear that
there's no truth and who cares/ Why do you say it like you're right"), yet
the abject misery of Digital Ash feels more lived in. "Hit the Switch" and
"Devil in the Details" are as psychologically acute as any dramatizations of
alcoholic self-recrimination I've heard in seven years of 12-stepping. More
importantly, the desperate rationalizations with which Oberst rallies his
way out of his despair sound just as familiar.

Up against the carefully realized Wide Awake, Digital Ash is a mess, and
not just sonically. The almost classically balanced stanzas of "Lua," from
the former, freeze an unhappy love in stark relief. In contrast, the gawky
"Theme From Piņata," from the latter, leads with "I wish I had a parachute
'cause I'm falling bad for you." And before you can puke, he cornily
explains the title: There's "something sweet" within his "shell" if you give
him a whack. But though I'm sympathetic to both angles, in the end I'm
slightly more partial to the mess. Oberst's persona rings truer as work in
progress; his self-pity simply proves that his stores of empathy are so
boundless he can even lavish some on himself. If most sad sacks wallow,
Conor's more escape artist, wriggling out of despair toward some ripe,
elusive epiphany he clumsily shoehorns into his inadequate romantic
vocabulary.

My resistance to the autobiographical fallacy prevents me from wondering
under what conditions he's done his research on melancholy, though my
avuncular drive insists on pointing out that drunks age poorly, if at all,
blahblahblah. I hope he realizes Dylan Thomas was regularly called an
asshole and that someday he'll be dignified and old. But though I wish him
the best personally, as far as art goes, his ugliness strikes me as more
instructive to us old folks than his heroism. Hearing Conor re-enact the raw
unfolding of poetic suckiness that is post-adolescence hammers home the real
privilege of age: I'm free not to hate Conor Oberst because I'm free not to
want to be Conor Oberst.

I still think the Arcade Fire are full of shit though.

Bright Eyes plays Town Hall January 25, 26, and 27.


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