Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Amelia Atlas
02/10/2005 | Harvard Independent | Album Review
Killing a few days at home in New York over intersession, I found the city pretty much as I left it - crusted snow lined the wet pavement and pedestrians jostled shoulders resentfully on the subway. The sky was still grey and the nights were still frantic. But one distinct change became apparent as I strolled the streets of the Upper Westside: from every newsstand hung copies of TimeOut New York bearing the earnest face of Conor Oberst, the frontman and force behind the band Bright Eyes. From the way his photograph dotted the landscape of the city, it was quickly clear that New York had a new spokesman. How on earth did Oberst, once the best-kept secret of indie fans who like their lyrics intelligent and vocals jarring, end up, well, popular?

That's right. I'm one of those fans, the type who treasure the musicians they found early and greet their success with an ambivalent mixture of regret and self-congratulation. Then again, Bright Eyes has been on the rise for awhile now, so consider me over it.

In truth though, while a young troubadour from heartland Nebraska may seem like an unlikely hero for jaded Manhattanites generally quick to trade sincerity for irony, his growing fame makes sense in any setting. On his two new albums, released simultaneously in January, the city where Oberst has recently settled provides a surprising centerpiece. On I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, in particular, New York is a near constant backdrop - Oberst's lyrics tell of walking down lonely avenues at dawn, and even the album cover sketches a row of brownstones in dull hues.

And the urban character of Wide Awake, if not the album's only surprise, seems representative of the maturity that pervades these new sets of songs. With fewer of the adolescent wails so ubiquitous in his early work on Letting Off the Happiness and Fevers and Mirrors on display in both new albums, Oberst seems to have refined the natural tremor of his voice. Those moments of bracing angst are in part what drew me to Bright Eyes in the first place, but then maybe I'm maturing too, because I'm not too troubled by their diminished prominence.

Still, if the lyrics are urban in flavor, the melodies on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning are anything but. Taking off in the direction suggested by such tracks as "Make War" from 2002's Lifted Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Oberst lends a folksy flair to this acoustic album, evident in its paired down melodies and back-up vocals from Emmylou Harris on two tracks. The intimate fragility of Oberst's voice and lyrics are in full effect here, as the album offers fewer of the orchestral crescendos that drove Lifted.

The song structures are often simple - sentences broken into halted fragments against a delicately strummed melody - even verging on repetitive at times, but somehow their familiarity only makes them more personal. Whether capturing the intensity of regret on "Another Travelin' Song" or tackling the disaster of our current war on the closer "Road to Joy," Oberst never fails to render his sentiments in provocative imagery and allegory. In essence, Wide Awake fulfills its ambition, a brilliant and impressive showcase for Oberst's songwriting.

But count on Oberst to make evaluating his follow-up to the acclaimed Lifted far from easy. As if to flout the efforts of his critics before they could even touch him, Oberst, with typical protean wisdom, has released two very different albums at once. Where Wide Awake delves into more traditional forms, its counterpart, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn takes a comparatively more experimental turn. Complete with electronic beats and synthesizers in place of Bright Eyes's usual acoustic instrumentation, the album marks new territory for Oberst. Jimmy Tamborello, of Dntel and, more famously, The Postal Service, claims producer credit for the first single "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," which in and of itself may send some fans screaming away in fear that Bright Eyes has, horror of horrors, sold out.

But the single, though hardly the height of Oberst's artistry, merits a listen, perhaps several. As does the album. The forceful musical peaks and driving guitar missing from Wide Awake reappear on Digital Ash over shuffling beats and electronic flourishes. The very prospect of hearing Oberst's voice, with its controlled quaver, set in unfamiliar arrangements alone makes the album interesting.

Nonetheless, the disconcerting slickness of "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" is relatively representative of the difficulties that plague the Digital Ash as a whole: words and beats and music come together almost too neatly here, losing the rough edges that make Bright Eyes himself. His best songs - "Haligh, Haligh" and "Lover I Don't Have to Love," for instance - have drawn their power from the contrast between Oberst's trembling voice layered over carefully crafted melodies. On Digital Ash, this formula becomes a little too smooth, a little too digestible, a little too polished. With the exception of "Gold Mine Gutted," it lacks those songs that pierce you, that trill you with a not-so-proverbial shiver.

So which album is truly the next incarnation of Bright Eyes? That probably isn't a fair question. Both albums represent admirable yet disparate evolutions from Bright Eyes' previous discography, and that's precisely the point. But I'd wager a bet that, for tried and true fans, it's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning that will get set on repeat as they wander city streets, iPod in tow.


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