Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Andy Scheffler
02/07/2005 | Cordmag.com | www.cordmag.com | Album Review
While we have been directed not to review this digital album alongside the coinciding acoustic release by Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, with each other, it's difficult to not do so, because they were released together. And they are such completely different albums. Obviously main man Conor Oberst needs as many outlets as possible for his creativity. As a reviewer, I always want to compare works against each other, even if they aren't released on the same day. It's challenging to treat these as separate reviews. But I'll try. But I just need to pre-empt that with this comment - that this was not a two-album release because Oberst and his rotating band of friends simply came up with 20 or 30 songs and didn't feel like cutting any of them, but rather, it's two very deliberately constructed albums of vastly different material. They are so far at opposite ends of the spectrum. One, acoustic, one, digital. Not just 'plugged in', but full-on digital. The two play off one another, and showcase in one go how wide-ranging this guy's talents and interests are.

So, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn then. It's really really digital. It's more bloopy and blippy than anything I have ever heard from Bright Eyes before. Through that superficial instrument quality though, the songs are not a big departure from his regular work. He competently turned instruments that would normally be guitars and flutes and drums, into samples and loops and noises. Behind it, his voice and melodies are the same as his regular work. Some standout tracks for sure are "Down In A Rabbit Hole", "I Believe In Symmetry" and "Devil In The Details." The lyrics are at times hard to peg out - Normally though I'll hear something and be like 'ooh good line' and then 30 seconds later hear another line that grabs me. He is a veritable poet, and it's impossible to choose. So we start the album really super really digital, lots of noise and sound that ebbs and flows. But suddenly at "Hit The Switch" - both appropriately titled because it seems to be a turning point, as well as being halfway through the disc - it gets really organic. There's strings and acoustic guitars. I recall this one from the recent Bright Eyes show in Vancouver, though he gave it a very different treatment than it shows up on the album. You take off your clothes... stand there so brave / you used to be shy. I wonder at times if he runs out of ideas or tires of trying out new things or just has this sound that conveys his emotions so strongly that he keeps coming back to it... certainly he's not at a loss for subject matter. His life seems to be a bit of a train wreck at times, and there's never a shortage of things to write about train wrecks. But some songs here bring up strong memories of older songs, the way the vocals gallop along and the peppy folky acoustic guitars.

The concept of dark overtones is nothing new to Oberst, both as politics and love (lost), but "Devil In The Details" is really freaking spooky. That warbly voice of his sounds small and scared under piles of dark organ-ish synths and heavy pianos. It seemed at first a happier album, but the middle begins to get melancholy, to the point of even the listener sharing the pain and almost at times wanting to turn the album off because it's too depressing. Then the chorus on "Devil..." gets into this chimey carnival-ride sound... and really, what's creepier than a carnival ride? It's clowns. Eek.

Well by now, my fears allayed on the 'out of ideas thing.' As the disc keeps going, there are new frenetic songs I've never heard before. What's with babies crying?? It's a very common addition to CDs lately I find. Or maybe just the ones i'm picking up. I may just be a jerk, but that's not a pleasant sound. I think there's better ways to get the point of 'anguish' across.... Oberst is good at that. He can find other ways than a baby crying. We get back to digital for "Ship In A Bottle" and "Light Pollution" for sure, but it's still more organic than the early goings. There's a more song-like quality to them, with the electronics being more as enhancements. "Light Pollution" sounds like it could be a radio single. "Theme From Pinata" is very gentle. This is a good solid roller-coaster-of-emotions album from Oberst, as it well should be. From hope to despair in a heartbeat.... regret, fond memories, love, hate, pining, desperation, appreciation, criticism. It's all here under a sheath of beautiful words and incredible sounds. Oberst has done it again. Then to really throw me for a loop, the final track, "Easy/Lucky/Free" brings to mind the sunny California croonings of Chris Isaak. What's going on? This is so gentle. The noises are great and pulsing... strange how forceful they were at the beginning of the disc and yet how soft and subtle it all came at the end. More calliope noises here, but less creepy. Hums with energy, the digitals in this, like it wants to explode but it refuses too. Great ending track. Yet really.... off for Oberst. What planet am I on?? Suddenly there's disconcerting screams. The disc ends with more of a state-of-world bent than a personal one. When he gets into this mode, it's powerful. It all chops into pieces at the end like a skipping record. Innnteresting parallel - digital to create analog. And then it just ends. Abrupt. Stop. Oh you just fall off a cliff. And this review will too. *Boom*

Song of choice : Hard to choose! "Devil In The Details" though is certainly cool.



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