Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Rafer Guzman
01/27/2005 | New York Newsday | www.nynewsday.com | Live Show Preview
Conor Oberst, otherwise known as Bright Eyes, is a young singer-songwriter with a talent for language. But is he, as some believe, the new Bob Dylan? Their voices aren't similar, but the overall comparison is unavoidable: Like Dylan, Oberst seems born to set stories, images and emotions to music. What's more, he's an artist still coming into his own, and that's an exciting thing to witness.

The 24-year-old Oberst is often lumped into the emo category for his heart-on-sleeve lyrics and moved-by-the-spirit vocals (he likes to shout as well as sing). But his commanding new album, "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" (Saddle Creek), is disciplined and focused. On it, Oberst uses the structures of country and folk to channel his emotions and sculpt his thoughts. Like Dylan, Oberst doesn't always make himself clear, but his messages -- about love and death and beauty, to name just a few subjects -- somehow always go straight to the heart.

Speaking of Dylan (again), Oberst has also "gone electric" with a simultaneously released album, "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," suffused with synthesizers and drum machines. But during Tuesday's show, he and his six-piece band -- including a mandolin player and trumpeter -- drew mainly from "Wide Awake," beginning with its first track and ending with its last. (Oberst tours again in the spring with a show built around "Digital Ash.")

Oberst is more of a rocker than Dylan has ever been, and he careened through the 90-minute show (too short by half, it seemed) with a wild new energy. Two years ago, at Manhattan's Irving Plaza, he stood mostly still, letting his vocals do all the work. This time, he seemed liberated, swinging his guitar, knocking over cymbals and writhing to the locomotive rhythms of his band.

There also were sublime moments, as on the slow, lilting "Lua," which reflected Oberst's new hometown of Manhattan. The song is about boozing it up, but the tone was as solemn as an Edward Hopper painting. "I keep waving at the taxis, they keep turning their lights off," Oberst nearly whispered, accompanied by only his guitar. "Supplies are endless in the evening / By the morning they'll be gone."

What Oberst does best, though, is force violence and beauty to coexist. The slightly woozy melody of "Old Soul Song" repeatedly gave way to whorls of transcendent noise. "Another Travelin' Song" whooped along on a galloping rhythm and a Doppler-style steel guitar. And the closing "Road to Joy" -- a rocking interpolation of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" -- marched fiercely forward until skidding into discord at the end.

Does the new Dylan have any protest songs? Oberst did play a doozy that he wrote after last week's inauguration. Positing what happens "when the president talks to God," Oberst wondered, "Do they pick which countries to invade? Which Muslim souls can still be saved? I guess God just calls a spade a spade." For that, Oberst received some of the loudest cheers of the evening.


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