Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
No, I invite you here fully expecting you to know something about our pale Nebraskan troubadour. Perhaps more developing Rimbaud than AMERICAN SONGWRITER, Oberst has always had a way of making you cringe, be it with his screeching and overly emotive singing or his from-the-bone lyricism. He made a name for himself pairing diary-broken tearstains with an unavoidable talent for gorgeous couplets. Like Rimbaud, half his back-story was always his age and the precocious singularity of his talent.
The other half is where to place him musically. Hovering far too close to the EMO scene to find comfort with a generation hardened with Bush-as-God cynicism, Bright Eyes was always on the verge of achievement, grasping it at moments but never fully enough to bring it home. For every bewitching moment in which he reminded us all that we too should have picked up a pen and written that, God knows we've thought exactly that so many times, he turned us off with his gauche hyperbole. It was a juxtaposition with which we were never truly at ease, and perhaps that was the intent.
With the simultaneous release of two diametrically-opposed albums this January, Bright Eyes may well be on the verge of finally bridging the gap between his precocious talent and the maturity of an ageless songwriter. Between the crisp country-folk ofI'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the bruised cacophony of the more experimental Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, there's a lot to consume. Like most Saddle Creek releases from the past two years, the guest stars came in droves: Clay Leverett and Andy LeMaster of Now It's Overhead, Maria Taylor of Azure Ray, Clark Beachle of the Faint, Jimmy Tamborello, Nick Zinner, Jim James, and of course Emmylou Harris. And yet, as always, it's Oberst who emerges in the spotlight.
I'm Wide Awake begins with Oberst in anecdotal voice on "At the Bottom of Everything," unveiling a short tale about a lonely woman on an airplane. The distance and space in this opening tale leads into a rambling jamboree beat. His broom-tipped lyricism glides along in step with a gorgeous chorus, where My Morning Jacket's Jim James joins in the back. Oberst is gleeful and poignant, brimming with crystal-balled optimism and morning-after joy.
Following on that song's spurred heels, "We Are Nowhere and It's Now" introduces Bright Eyes' co-star here, Emmylou Harris. Complementing his chorus like a ghost beyond the door, Harris's coffee-deep voice hardens Oberst's with the accumulation of wisdom. Still, he more than holds his own, and considering the strength of Harris' contributions on the record, that's saying a lot. As the slow mournful horns fade against a waltzing beat, for the first time, we see the maturity in Oberst three-fold, as songwriter, craftsmen, and singer.
After the relative hush of the album's first half, "Another Travellin' Song" opens with a cowpoke break. The jails are turned loose and the drunk-tank vagabonds gain the street, full of rotgut and the heat of morning. It's Kris Kristofferson without the edge, Ry Cooder with his hands bound. A savage hillbilly guitar line plays against the back as Harris joins in, and the shuffled grit of the record's first half breaks finally into revelry. It couldn't come a moment sooner, just as the record's pacing began to sag.
Of course, with songs like the gorgeous "Landlocked Blues," one would be hard pressed to critique Oberst for returning to the sad-eyed songs of his youth. Perhaps the best track on the record, he and Harris sing in crisp, luminous tandem against a simple acoustic guitar. He sings "I found a liquid cure / To my landlocked blues / It will pass away / Like a slow parade / It's leaving but I don't know how soon." The line illustrates the growing simplicity of his lyricism, still bound by his love of metaphor and simile, but without the bloated overindulgence of his past. Harris glazes his road-worn weary with a simple endearment, and the duet, as on most of the album, works perfectly.
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is a completely different tale, with its own foreword and syntax but the recognizable traits of an author breaking free from his pigeonhole. Press-tagged as his band-album, even called his Radiohead record in places, it's more likely that Oberst is simply following the path that many of his label-mates have tread for the last few years. Sure, he admitted that he was attempting a more European dance-sound with the album, but between Now It's Overhead (on which Oberst guests) and other records by former Saddle-Creekers like Blake Sennett of the Elected last year, his label-mates were attempting the same sound, mixing the blustery synths of the Cure with the mind-club beats of Tamborello and friends.
With that said, the record winds up slightly more uneven than I'm Wide Awake. Oberst enlisted the Yeah Yeah Yeahs Nick Zinner to play guitar on much of the album, and the results are a tangled symphony of hazy synths, crusty programmed and chopped beats, and densely thicketed guitar lines. He rarely follows the atmosphere-over-song cue of Yorke and other songwriters with whom this album finds him compared, but why would he want to? He's a more gifted songwriter, more playful and full of verve.
Opening with the same distant start of I'm Wide Awake, "Time Code" is a protracted dreamscape, blipped across a checkout beat and plenty of samples. Replete with a Pink Floyd style time-ticking, at times the song feels like a direct ode to Dark Side. At the very least, it's an eye-opening reminder to the Oberst groupies and sycophants of just how different this record will be.
Complete with Delillo references and gravelly synth staccato, "Gold Mine Gutted" prays to basilica domes and bronzed allowances. It's his nostalgic ode to his home and the necessary departure from it. As much as one might wince at his return to overtly autobiographical journalisms, the timeless quality of the song's simple Thomas Wolfe-ian themes excuses it.
Sounding like post-ought Paul Simon, "Arc of Time" is almost tribal, grooved on jungle hand-claps and the Caribbean juggle of rain on a corrugated roof. "I hear if you make friends with Jesus Christ / You will get right up from that chalk out-line" sings Oberst. The line's withered sarcasm contrasts the song's sunny backdrop. As the electronic mayhem underneath obliterates the song's simple island origins, it's a line you return to, illustrating simultaneously the growth and the similarities behind the young songwriter.
After that opening trio, Digital Ash scatters in the wind a bit. "Hit the Switch" is a full-board return to Oberst's former yelping, and it just happens to coincide with an unfortunate retreat to his woe-is-me self-indulgence ("I'm completely alone at a table of friends / I feel nothing for them / I feel nothing, nothing"). "Light Pollution" is a galloping jaunt more tripped-up by its uninspired musicianship than its lyrics. A clean, Warrant-inspired guitar line is pushed up in the mix, and it overwhelms the myriad electronic gadgets spazzing beneath.
Still, with the Grandaddy-esque synth of "Take it Easy (Love Nothing)" and the harp and twinkling-piano chorus of "Devil in the Details," Digital Ash offers enough swelling, androgynous moments to approach its hype, or at least keep up with its release partner. In the end, of course, little of this matters. Thirteen hundred words to say what some of you already know and many will refuse to admit still: Conor Oberst is a talented little fucker. Perhaps finally he's not so much making progress as getting damn close. If the simultaneous release of two albums so layered in muddy atmospherics, dusty-basin poesie, and direct confrontation with a split heart won't convince you of this, nothing will.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3