Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Bob Hilburn
01/23/2005 | Los Angeles Times | www.latimes.com | Album Review
Unlike Bruce Springsteen and Guns N' Roses in the early '90s, Conor Oberst isn't releasing separate albums on the same day just because he had too much similar material to fit onto a single disc.

Oberst, who records with a rotating cast of musicians under the group name Bright Eyes, had already finished the mostly acoustic "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" album when he decided last year to postpone that album's release while he embarked on a substantially different musical excursion.

Hoping to find rhythms and textures as ambitious and personal as his songs, the most captivating young singer-songwriter in years went into the studio with an all-star cast of indie musicians, including members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Rilo Kiley, to record in a more experimental, electronica-tinged rock style.

The contrast between the albums, both being released Tuesday, is quickly apparent.

Unlike "I'm Wide Awake," where the only thing you hear for the first minute is the intimacy of Oberst's words, you don't hear his lyrics at all in the opening two minutes of "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." The CD begins with a sonic landscape as dark and apprehensive in places as a horror movie soundtrack.

Even without the alarm clock rings at the end of the first track, the number makes you feel like you've been through someone's nightmare. That makes it all the more evocative when Oberst later speaks longingly in the song "Hit the Switch" about trying to overcome crippling anxieties:

Each morning she wakes with a dream to describe

Something lovely that bloomed in her beautiful mind

I say, "I'll trade you one, for two nightmares of mine."

But Oberst has not delivered his equivalent of Radiohead's "Kid A." He hasn't turned his back on the traditional songwriting approach. In fact, things brighten considerably as "Digital Ash" proceeds -- achieving a downright pop infectiousness on "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" that borders on something from the Cars. Yet the lyrics of salvation and hope in the CD are frequently surrounded by references to death and depression.

Though not as classically framed as "I'm Wide Awake," this CD is not as digressive a work as the "experimental" goal suggests. The arrangements compete at times with Oberst's lyrics on early listenings, but the individuality and power of his vision do assert themselves.

A few of the tracks, including "Theme From Pinata" and "Easy/Lucky/Free," are even delicate enough to fit comfortably on "I'm Wide Awake." In the "Theme From Pinata," Oberst is as personal and revealing as he's ever been -- trying to find a way to break his own emotional shell.

I feel like a pinata won't you take a swing at me.

If you could just crack the shell open

I think inside you would find something sweet.

Later in the same song, Oberst defines his personal search for comfort and self-worth with a declaration that defies the recurring confusion and despair.

Winter came to Omaha and left us looking like a bride

A million perfect snowflakes now and no two are alike.

So it's hard for me imagining the flaws in this design

I know debris it covers everything.

But still I am in love with this life.

The instrumentation, from synthesizers and drum machines to chimes to guitars, complement richly the often conflicting emotions in Oberst's songs, creating moods that are sometimes lovely, sometimes shrouded in dread. These touches also give the album an adventurous, decidedly modern aura.

"I'm Wide Awake" is a more riveting collection -- an album with the simmering glow of a masterpiece. But "Digital Ash" too is a bold, essential chapter in this young man's inspired body of work.


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