Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
At the same time, where most of our pop stars spring fully formed from the heads of their handlers, Oberst remains a DI(mostly)Y, friends-over-money, fuck-the-man independent musician. He makes mistakes, indulges his excesses (oh, Lifted, how close you were to a home run), and even shouts his politics, inarticulately but without restraint, which is something that fewer and fewer musicians at his tier would have the guts to do their first time on Craig Kilborn.
As you've probably heard from the media blitz, tomorrow Oberst is releasing both a record of road-tested acoustic material and a new project of electronica-flavored pop. The specific triumph of his two new albums lies in how they deliver a new, more seasoned Oberst, retaining what's great in his talent while purging the rough edges.
Let's start with the album that's merely "decent." Oberst and producer Mike Mogis had talked about making a more rhythmic and electronic album since even before Lifted, and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn finally realizes that project, setting Oberst in front of a rock band, beats and strings. But where a Björk would have tackled this by flitting around the world to find the hottest club DJs and the coldest Inuit choirs, Oberst put the record together with a small crew of his buddies: While Jimmy Tamborello of the Postal Service co-produced the first single, "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" and the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Nick Zinner swings by for a few cameos, the producer that Oberst relies on most heavily is Mogis, who programs under the alias the Digital Audio Engine.
Digital Ash places Oberst's voice front and center, stripping away his guitar and impromptu vocalizations and tying him to each song like a good pop star; witness the way he takes "Devil in the Details" with the stance of a Bowie. And where the lyrics are self-centered, Oberst still projects himself more broadly and concisely than on Lifted, as he ruminates from up high on everything from the circle of life and death to admitting that he's a dick when he drinks.
But if Oberst picked up better posture, he's still learning where to take it. It's hard to pinpoint why Digital Ash is merely "okay." The songs are enjoyable, and if Tamborello chips in the most exciting beats, Mogis' are competitive, especially the bamboo-footed-tap-dancer rhythms of "Arc of Time (Time Code)" or the moody "nightmare" sequence that launches the record. But nothing else captures such a gripping mood. Digital Ash has the claustrophobic feel of a singer locked up with a computer, and it's distractingly chipper, like Rilo Kiley in their own Dntel homages; not every Bright Eyes record has to be an emotional epic, but Digital Ash feels like a practice run. Consider it version 1.0.
If Digital Ash sounds like indie kids breaking into pop, its sister disc, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, is a red-blooded folk album that's coincidentally built to be hugely, hugely popular. Oberst has been so close to Americana that I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning won't surprise anyone, and even Emmylou Harris' glorious cameos aren't a stamp of approval so much as a professional decision to bring in someone who can nail these harmonies-- a rare and totally warranted exception to the "friends-only" policy, because a twentysomething couldn't make pretty sound as weary as Harris on "Land Locked Blues".
I'm Wide Awake perfectly captures a place and time in Oberst's life. It chronicles his first memories of staying in New York City, and the metropolis rarely gets a folk singer to chronicle its streets this lucidly, at least since the hootenanny days; he frequents its parties and stumbles down its streets like a midwestern transplant instead of a jaded hipster, sings about chemical dependency and the endless pains of love, while capturing as a backdrop the build-up to a foreign war. I'm Wide Awake weaves the personal and the political more fluidly than most singers even care to try, and the consummate tunefulness just strengthens those moments where he pinches a nerve-- the songs that still give me chills every time, like "At the Bottom of Everything": "Into the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair/ We must stare, we must stare, we must stare."
This record was made to be loved, to be obsessed over by some but remembered by everybody, to get scratched and worn out through constant rotation in a sorority living room or your first studio apartment or your mom's old radio, to capture Conor Oberst for the first time with more polish than spit, but still getting him deeply under your skin. And he earns it so thoroughly that while "Poison Oak" would have been a fine, graceful closer, he propels us instead to the big Bright Eyes finale of "Road to Joy", where he justifies the joke of cadging Beethoven's most famous theme, drives the cascading horns and searing guitars, and finally, finally screams his head off. Give yourself to it and you'll understand that when Oberst's staring so piercingly from all those magazine covers, this is what he's looking at.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3