Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Gemma Tarlach
01/18/2005 | Milwaukee Journal Sentinal | Live Show Preview
Conor Oberst is growing up.

This is a good thing.

As Bright Eyes -- the singer-songwriter is the only consistent member of the loosely defined band -- 24-year-old Oberst is making the transition nicely from a sort of guitar-slinging Heathcliff of the Nebraska plains to a smart and savvy social commentator-troubadour.

Oberst will release two separate albums on Jan. 25 -- and building buzz already touts each as an album-of-the-year contender. Sunday evening at the Pabst Theater, however, Oberst seemed oblivious to the growing hype stampede heading his way. From the first chords of opener "Bottom of Everything" to the final crash of amped-up energy on the encore "Road to Joy," the reed-like, big-eyed Oberst was consumed with delivering the music, not living up to his marketing.

Much of Sunday's set was drawn from the more countrified of the two discs, "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," notably "Joy," the excellent "Another Travelin' Song" and the more introspective "First Day of My Life." The second album out next week, "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," reportedly has a more freewheeling, experimental feel.

The territory between country, folk and heartland rock is Oberst's biggest strength, however. Omaha's indie king has always had a knack for making the most of simple chord progressions, but now Oberst is adding more distinct choruses and tightening his writing.

It's in the lyrics that Oberst's evolution is clearest and most exciting. Although he's been releasing albums in a variety of acts since he was barely a teenager, for too long Oberst seemed locked into a navel-gazing smart kid posture. As sharply written as many of his earlier songs were, too often they felt constricted by their own insularity, as on "Padraic My Prince," one of the older songs performed Sunday night.

Increasingly, however, Oberst is willing to make grander statements about the world around him, and fans are ready to listen. Sunday's passionate performance of "When the President Talks to God" arguably drew one of the strongest crowd reactions in an evening filled with open adulation of the singer.


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