Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Glenn Gamboa
01/29/2005 | New York Newsday | www.nynewsday.com | Album Review
Somewhere in the East Village, Conor Oberst is finding out what kind of day it is.

If it's a good one, he may write a song or go out and enjoy himself. If it's a bad one, he will call one of his friends and together they will chase it away, determined not to give in to what he calls debilitating bouts of depression, determined not to do something stupid like that night in December 2000 when he nearly offed himself by drinking a magnum of whiskey.

Although we all make this determination, the intensity of his process is what makes Oberst (aka Bright Eyes aka "The New Dylan" aka "The Voice of His Generation") so special. He isn't out to save rock and roll or even his growing legions of fans. He's trying to save himself. The rest is gravy.

There is an urgency to Oberst's songs, as if each one's existence was somehow necessary to his future. That need drives the simultaneous release of two wildly different albums (both on Saddle Creek).

"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" shows that Oberst has mastered the alt-country-tinged art of revelation that he had started in his previous albums, especially his 2002 breakthrough "Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground." "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," which leans more toward the electronic and experimental, shows he hasn't run out of ideas, and he isn't afraid to try them out.

As its title suggests, "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" is preoccupied with death. "I'm thinking of quitting drinking again, I know I've said that a couple of times," he sings in "Hit the Switch," a tale of addiction and rationalization set against a cold, yet upbeat synth-pop backdrop. "Sometimes I pray I don't die. I'm a goddamn hypocrite." With its '80s-styled synths and glossed-up guitars, "Light Pollution" may be the happiest-sounding song about a traffic fatality ever recorded, closing with "I bet the stars seemed so close at the end" and a fade that will summon thoughts of Roxette.

Oberst and his collaborators, including the Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello, sift through the musical works of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Cure and Nine Inch Nails for inspiration to give the laments on "Digital Ash" some grandeur, a bit of synthesized beauty to contrast with the all-too-real pain on the lovely elegy "Easy/Lucky/Free."

"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" is the more accomplished of the two albums, with Oberst relying mostly on the immediacy of his acoustic guitar and his sometimes-powerful, sometimes-quivering voice. If "Digital Ash" is a general meditation about life and death, "I'm Wide Awake" is more concerned with Oberst's personal struggles.

"Lua" marks his relocation from Omaha to the East Village with a bunch of only-in-Manhattan details - "I know that it is freezing, but I think we have to walk/Kept waving at the taxis, they keep turning their lights off" as well as talk of West Side lofts, pigeons and the train. The classic country twang of "Train Under Water," a tears-in-your-beer tale about falling slowly out of love, balances nicely with details about getting lost whenever he leaves the East Village, and being unable to make it to Brooklyn.

When things start to get a little too dark, Oberst lets loose on the Dylanesque rave-up "Another Travelin' Song" aided by some gorgeous harmonies from Emmylou Harris, who also helps out on the political "Land Locked Blues." The high point of both albums, though, is "Road to Joy," a racing stream-of-consciousness renovation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, that rushes from sarcastic political asides like "So when you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing, it's best to join the side that's gonna win" to self-encouragement like "I could have been a famous singer if I had someone else's voice, but failure's always sounded better, let's -- it up, boys, make some noise!"

Considering Oberst's ongoing personal battles, it's thrilling to see him summon up an act of defiance, a sign that he will triumph over his worries as well as the music industry.

"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," Grade: A; "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," both in stores today, Grade: A.