Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Andrew Gauthier
02/03/2005 | Wisconsin Badger Herald | Album Review
The frustrating thing about Conor Oberst -- the temperamental and talented lead singer/guitarist/foundation of the Omaha, Neb., band Bright Eyes -- is that his greatest strengths also happen to be his greatest weaknesses.

At 24, Oberst has already established himself as one of the most gifted songwriters working today. Unfortunately, his prolificacy sometimes leads to mediocrity and his fervency for self-expression sometimes leads to a clumsy and near-sighted urgency. When he's at his best, Oberst is a rebellious and nuanced musician as well as a disarmingly clever songwriter. At his worst, he is whiny and self-indulgent.

Thankfully, on the two Bright Eyes albums released last week - the folk homage "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and the electronic foray "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" -- he is much more of the former.

Both albums are brilliant, slightly unrefined achievements and it's hard to think of another band that has released 22 songs of such weight in one go-around. Of the two, "Wide Awake" is the stronger effort, if only because Oberst's narrative lyrics and fondness for acoustic guitar lend themselves better to the folk genre.

The album opens with his nasally voice, tinged with a bit of Heartland humility, starkly alone until he eventually picks up an acoustic guitar and then, moments later, is joined with a sudden, blissful onrush of bass and mandolin. This pleasurable jolt of energy is typical of Bright Eyes in that it is also incongruous -- serving as a sprightly accompaniment to heavy, world-weary lyrics.

The song becomes a microcosm for Oberst's approach to music, one based on contrasting juxtapositions. The music of Bright Eyes isn't meant to serve as a comfortable companion to the lyrics. Rather, it often emphasizes the words by imbuing the song with a contrary emotion. The lyrics themselves are often paradoxical, both pessimistic and optimistic at once. Hence, over a light mandolin riff, Oberst croons the wonderful line "While my mother waters plants / my father loads his guns / He says death will give us back to God / just like this setting sun is returned to this lonesome ocean."

The most beautiful song on the album is the quiet and pensive "Lua" which knocks listeners flat with its naked emotion. The song is nothing more than a simple acoustic guitar and Oberst's irrepressible voice just a few decibels above a whisper, yet it hits harder than the loudest and busiest songs on the album.

What sets Oberst apart from other artists is his urgency to have people listen to what he has to say. He shrewdly accomplishes this task throughout "Wide Awake", at times using the combination of a pedal steel guitar and a trumpet on " Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)," an organ along with Jason Boesel's crashing drums on "Poison Oak" or just the despondency of his own voice.

There are flashes of utter brilliance throughout the album, yet they are never sustained long enough. The inclusion of Emmylou Harris, who appears on three songs, serves as the most disappointing aspect of "Wide Awake." Presumably, Bright Eyes features her to pay homage to their country roots, but she isn't granted the proper reverence. Her voice never quite melds with Oberst's and oftentimes he seems to treat her as a nuisance. This obvious yet eventually awkward collaboration almost becomes laughable on the semi-duet "Landlocked Blues," as the 57-year-old Harris sings, "The world's got me dizzy again / You'd think after 22 years I'd be used to the spin."

Although "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" ultimately falls a little short of perfection, it comes closer than "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." Probably the worst thing to happen to "Digital Ash" is its accompanying album, which will always be the more appreciated of the two. The folksy, New York City-based "Wide Awake" has been disproportionately hailed by the national media who've been listening to '80s pop-infused indie rock for the past couple of years. It's too bad because, as it happens, "Digital Ash" is an impressive accomplishment with two deadweight songs in "Light Pollution" and "Theme to Pinata."

In the end, the album can't quite maintain its initial soaring level of achievement and, while listening to it, one gets the feeling that the songs were recorded in order because it seems like Oberst gets bored with the electronica experiment as the album progresses. Unlike other recent rock acts that have channeled 80s pop and used it for style, Bright Eyes finds substance in its ephemeral, euphorically contemporary nature. These children of the decade manipulate its music -- with help from Omaha's electro-rock band The Faint and The Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello -- so that it serves as an ample foundation for meditations on aging and time.

The album becomes a delightfully enjoyable examination of death and musical expression. On "Arc of Time (Time Code)," Oberst proclaims, "On a circuit board we will soon be born again / And again, again, again."

The key to this album, as with all Bright Eyes music, is the group's tendency to starkly contrast the electronic with the organic. This contrast is evident when, for example, a plucking acoustic guitar confronts a drum machine and a digital melody on "Arc of Time" or when a wave of violin and cello emphatically conclude "Down In a Rabbit Hole" and "I Believe in Symmetry."

Bright Eyes is too often negatively slapped with an emo label, but in the current musical climate it is refreshing to hear music pervaded by emotion, especially when it sounds this good.

Bright Eyes have released what will remain two of the best albums of 2005, although they both have their flaws. "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" are the rough yet undeniably great efforts of a young, talented band and its irrepressible frontman in the midst of a sometimes fan-frustrating progression toward their full potential.