Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Jonah Bayer
01/26/2005 | Ohio Free Times | | Album Review
THESE DAYS, labeling an artist "the new Bob Dylan" means less than nothing. It's like calling a slumbering infant "cute." Twenty-four-year-old Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) is the most recent recipient of the title, partly because of his outspoken political polemics, and partly because he's compiled a massive body of work at a relatively young age. But if there's any truth the comparison (and there undeniably is), it lies less in the music and more in the rich literary imagery and striking narratives Oberst crafts on his two latest albums, the folksy I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the more, uh, digital, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn .

Minimalist, melancholy and mostly unplugged, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning ultimately succeeds because Oberst doesn't overanalyze it. (The album was reportedly recorded in less than two weeks.) Oberst's spoken-word improvisations in "At the Bottom of Everything" are oddly reminiscent of Tupelo Honey -era Van Morrison. "Land Locked Blues," his heartbreaking duet with Emmylou Harris, is so fragile it seems as if it could disintegrate at any moment.

Ironically, Oberst only falters on Wide Awake when he's too honest. On his last disc, 2002's Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil Keep Your Ear To The Ground , the Omaha, Nebraska native wallowed in his insecurities and cried about how everything he did was "trite and cheap and a waste." Now based out of Manhattan, he opts to sing about going to parties at actors' westside lofts and the frustration of trying to hail a cab in the winter ("Lua"). It may sound sinister, but part of Oberst's charm has always been his martyrdom. He'll suffer so we don't have to.

Now, if we're going to continue with this hackneyed Dylan analogy (oh, yes, you bet we are!), the logical comparison for I'm Awake 's slightly electronic and mostly psychedelic companion, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn , would be Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival 40 years ago. The problem is that Oberst's already done things that are far more innovative than having the Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello program a few buried beats as he does on Digital Urn . Hell, Oberst toured with four percussionists in support of the aforementioned Lifted .

More Flaming Lips than Fatboy Slim, Digital Urn is markedly more experimental, but the album's end results don't deviate much from the every prior Bright Eyes disc. Essentially, it's another handful of heartbreakingly brilliant songs bookended by what seems like filler in comparison but is actually still better than 99 percent of other music being made today.

After a mostly noise-washed introduction, Digital Ash's first real song, "Gold Mine Gutted," definitely falls into the heartbreakingly brilliant category. Opening with the almost palpable image, "It was Don DeLillo, whiskey, me and a blinking midnight clock," and aided by two syncopated drum kits panned hard left and right, the song is literally the sound of Oberst making amends with his past. Or at least with his "stray-dog freedom," as he puts it sans the sickening nostalgia that's usually par for this course.

However, some of Oberst's other experiments don't fare quite as well. The curious samples on "Arc Of Time" just seem superfluous, like Oberst accidentally wandered in a song by label mates the Faint and couldn't find his way out; while "Theme From Pinata" probably should have been included as a b-side for one of the singles he released in November. However, both of these flaws may be easily overlooked once you hear "Light Pollution," the most overtly rocking song on both discs and a throwback to Oberst's excellent side project, Desaperacidos.

Clearly, Oberst is confident as ever on these two efforts and, let's face it, he deserves to be. While every song may not be a masterpiece unto itself, he's already made his Bringing It All Back Home and his answer to The Basement Tapes . Where he goes from here, well, that's anybody's guess.