Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
Since the release of Lifted, Oberst, known for his intense, poetic lyrics and raw emotiveness, has become the media's indie rock darling, especially recently. Over the past few months, as it's gotten closer to the release date of his albums, Oberst could be found featured in tons of publications, from Rolling Stone to the NY Times to Seventeen. The sudden glaring media attention and mainstream popularity is something that likely will perturb the more hardcore Bright Eyes fans who have been longtime fans and consider Oberst to be their underground secret. However, Oberst's songwriting is so good that it's not likely this will alienate his longtime fans.
Digital Ash and I'm Wide Awake couldn't be more different from one another; in fact, they're each other's polar opposite, both musically and as far as lyrical content goes. Digital Ash, which is a complete departure from the typical Bright Eyes sound, is full of synthetic loops and electronic twists and turns while dealing with subject matters such as war, politics, drug/alcohol abuse and love, but on a very universal level. I'm Wide Awake deals with the very same subject matters, but in an intensely personal, autobiographical manner, as is typical of Oberst's previous acoustic-based Bright Eyes albums. Digital Ash in it's own right is a good album, but not a great one, while I'm Wide Awake, on the other hand, is.
Along with Bright Eyes' usual cast of Saddle Creek characters, I'm Wide Awake features a bevy of guest appearances including country legend Emmylou Harris on three tracks and Jim James from My Morning Jacket. Oberst's vocals are stronger here than they have been on previous albums. Gone is the cracking voice and off-key notes, something that on his other albums either appealed to listeners or repelled them. While some might miss this rawness, the smoother sounding vocals add to the emotiveness of his songwriting rather than taking anything away.
The album opens with Oberst narrating the story of a woman on an international flight gone awry as a segue into "At The Bottom of Everything," a jubilant folk-rock tune that lyrically meshes the very natural and rustic imagery common of the old school folk that influenced it with more modern, urban imagery. The song leaves one with the feeling that music can give us hope even in a time of confusion and uncertainty.
Most of the songs were written after his move to New York City and portray Oberst as a lost soul in the big, lonely world, searching for something he can cling to for hope. He tries to find hope in love, but instead finds himself dealing with a tumultuous relationship. He tries to console himself by overindulging in alcohol and drugs.
His songs also have political undertones, sometimes subtle, sometimes incredibly overt, as he is confronted with a political state in his country that leaves him feeling just as detached from the world around him as his dilemmas with interpersonal relationships, a deteriorating mental state and rampant alcoholism.
The fourth track and first single off the album, "Lua," features Oberst alone with his guitar. With his vocals so hushed that at times it seems he is whispering the words, he tells a story that features most of the themes discussed above. He has gotten caught up in the fast-paced lifestyle of the New York scene, while dealing with a struggling relationship and drinking too much. The innocence of the melody belies the darkness of the lyrics.
"First Day of My Life" features Oberst finger picking on his guitar. Despite the simplicity of the song's melody and lyrics, it's actually one of the more powerful songs on the album, as Oberst realizes the importance of having love in his life.
Some of the songs are a bit more raucous, such as "Train Under Water," which begins very gently with just Oberst playing an acoustic guitar and picks up with a twangy backing band. "Another Travelin' Song," on which Harris provides backup vocals during the chorus, is another faster tempo song featuring a pedal steel and a bit of twang that gives the song a very alt-country feel.
Harris also provides backup vocals on "Land Locked Blues." This song, though it discusses a struggling relationship throughout, is one of the more politically overt songs on the album. Oberst watches little boys playing war with tree branches. In the middle of the song a trumpet plays "Taps" in mock homage to America. Even when his relationship is at the forefront of the verse, his dismay with the political landscape is always there, such as when he sings, "We made love on the living room floor/with the noise in the background from a televised war." In the chorus he sings, "If you walk away, I'll walk away." This idea can easily sum up how he feels about both his failing relationship and how he feels our country should approach war.
The album ends with the foot tapping "Road to Joy," a play on words, as it borrows the melody from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." It leaves us feeling just as the first song does - that music can give us hope in troubled times.
Perhaps it's a little early to make such a bold statement, but at the end of 2005 it wouldn't be surprising if I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning topped many of the year's best lists.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3