I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
Taken a step further, Eminem is restating both his popularity and his ability to hold a large part of the American youth in rapture, hanging on his every flip and slam. Marshall Mathers -- a 32-year-old rapper from Detroit -- commands an obedient, trusting audience, and he knows it.
And, as strange as it may sound, Conor Oberst -- a 24-year-old singer/songwriter from Omaha -- isn't that different. Oberst, who has recorded with a revolving cast of band members under the name Bright Eyes since 1998, commands an equally attentive if smaller audience. Both writers are fully aware of their character flaws and prodigious talents, and both of them bleed through in striking four-minute poses. Mathers and Oberst are separate, incomparable beasts, of course, but -- when it comes to finding an audience and making it shut up and listen -- they are ironically equivalent masters.
For years, Oberst has been the precocious poet laureate of the indie world, establishing himself as an alarmingly mature prodigy nearly a decade ago and drawing the title of "new Dylan" with 2002's sprawling Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.
In November, each single from his recent two-album release day debuted at the top two positions of the Billboard singles chart. Those that have heard him generally subscribe to what he has to say. If that seems overstated, away message checking over the next several months may be the best evidence. Oberst writes in memorable, profound and dense clusters, packing multiple mantras inside a solitary verse.
Girls, from high school freshmen to thirty-year-old single women convinced that Mr. Right may exist inside a weekend bar, find empathy in his own dejection and string of broken hearts. Boys find him an expert on how to love and live with sensitivity -- and the appropriateness and adequacy of later drowning the fallout in dope, booze and self-pity.
For an indie kid with the ability to sell hundreds of thousands of records on his own with independent label he established during puberty, Oberst now stands at an unprecedented crossroads. Last Tuesday, he released two albums: the country-tinged, Emmylou Harris-augmented I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the electronically conceived, beat-programmed Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Tonight, he will make the fourth stop on a three-month worldwide tour in support of the former at Raleigh's ornate, 2,000-seat Memorial Auditorium. And there is every indication that, in April, he will simply turn the tour buses around and launch a tantamount campaign behind Digital Ash.
These days, Conor Oberst is an assumed genius. And, in many ways, he deserves that reputation. On the business front, Saddle Creek -- a label he started with money from his high school band -- now stands as a true indie vanguard, sporting a home-grown roster that has or does still include The Faint, Cursive, The Good Life and Rilo Kiley. On the philosophical front, he stands true to his ideals. Saddle Creek's refusal to release a Rilo Kiley single to mainstream radio resulted in a label switch for the band, and Oberst's own decision to eschew venues booked by Clear Channel Entertainment cost him the chance to join The Cure's summer festival.
More importantly, the aesthetic front has never been so promising for Oberst and the ever-expanding songwriter's vision that constitutes Bright Eyes. Wide Awake and Digital Ash deliver Oberst's most despondent and shattered, compelling and redemptive visions of the world to date. He criticizes society ("You are as good as dead without a bank account.") and the powers that be ("So when you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing, it's best to join the side that's going to win.') with a forked-tongue acumen he levels on himself, too ("Sometimes I pray I don't die. I'm a g-- d--- hypocrite.")
For Oberst, irony isn't a rhetorical device used to prove his own intelligence. He uses it only when he sees the world as such. It's his outright sincerity that renders him perhaps the most consistently devastating and inspiring songwriter of this generation.
At this intersection, Bright Eyes has two available avenues: near-household recognition versus the perpetual pinnacle of the underground. It's a situation Radiohead presumably faced with OK Computer, and -- given their Kid A response -- it's arguable that they at least tried to deny their deed to mainstream acceptance.
Post-Lifted, name recognition has peaked, and people are buying both Bright Eyes records at one time just for that fact that almost every music periodical in America (including Rolling Stone) now spins in an Oberst-induced tizzy.
Oberst isn't exactly turning away from the buzz, either. The decision to record two diametrically opposed albums (thematically and sonically) and release them on the same day invokes interest from the start, and -- as that move comes from one of rock's best minds -- reviews, features and radio play are imminent.
The selling points abound. Country legend Emmylou Harris graces the harmonies of Wide Awake, and My Morning Jacket's Jim James guests on the album's first track. Even jazz guitarist Jesse Harris (who penned Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why") contributes to four tracks. The Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello adds a beat, and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs lends guitar and keyboard work to Digital Ash.
The production is polished this time, too. The esoteric portions of previous Bright Eyes' efforts have been excoriated, traded here for focused, concise songwriting. Mike Mogis' production has never sounded so clean. His pedal steel moans on Wide Awake are Nashville-worthy, and much of the electronic work on Digital Ash manages electronic experimentation and accessibility, much like Dave Fridmann and his success with The Flaming Lips.
That accessibility importantly sets these discs apart from earlier Bright Eyes work. Few first-time listeners would have made it through "Big Picture," the ramshackle, acoustic opener of Lifted, even though it sets the stage for the highly convoluted character that emerges over the next.
However, the opener of Wide Awake, "At the Bottom of Everything," sets the stage perfectly this time. Over an "I'll Fly Away variation, Oberst and James sing, "When my mother waters plants, my father loads his gun / And says death will give us back to God just like the setting sun is returned to the lonesome ocean."
"Lua," the sole boy-with-guitar track found here, is a sweetly crooned saccharine ballad about the conflict between complicated but comforting companionship and simple, desolate isolation. It's Oberst at his prettiest. And apparently the folk accessibility is working, as Wide Awake is outselling its outstanding (but more grating, glitch-prone and difficult) peer two-to-one.
As such, Wide Awake courses with a reserved positivity. Oberst seems capable of finding himself and love at most turns. He defies a "televised war" by "making love on the living room floor" as the harrowing newscast drones on in the background. In "Old Soul Song," Oberst joins a New York crowd of protesters that overwhelms the police and surges past barricades and into the street. War perplexes him, but he's positive the concept can be defeated: "No one's sure how all of this got started. But we're going to make them g-- d--- certain how it's all going to end." Although the cards seem to be constantly stacked, Oberst is convinced he can at least change his own deck.
That doesn't mean that Oberst is getting soft, mellow or less critical. In fact, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn constitutes forty of the most harrowing, troubling minutes in the indie rock canon. Here, Oberst isn't trying to be pretty. It's not love he's after. It's resolution. And, if that includes death, so be it. Here, his voice is a cold, crackling, breaking warble, and its pain is as palpable is it is potent.
The majority of the pair's self-dejection comes with Digital Ash, as Oberst finds fault, uncertainty and disappointment in every "rabbit hole," "table of friends" and entrapping city. The weatherman is a fool, and sex carries an abhorrent stench. In "Ship in a Bottle," he wants to be "the house that you were raised in." Instead, he claims he is unfit for love, declaring that "If you knew who I was you would never grow old." Oberst admits that he abuses his friends, and that real comfort comes in death. The taste is bitter, but the material is brilliant.
The polar nature of the discs is comparable to Oberst's public and critical image. For a decade of consistent smarts, Oberst is praised and persecuted. If you're a real hipster, you don't mention Bright Eyes or you -- at least -- talk about him while offering the insider knowledge that you've been listening to him for years, perhaps even when he was 14 and in Commander Venus.
For every critic that recognizes the value in Bright Eyes, there is another that either oversees or dismisses it. Some pundits express their rejection by saying that Oberst can never meet the next-Dylan laudation while simultaneously jibing his writing with claims that many of his ideas are simply uncredited rips. The irony in that, of course, is that no one would be compared to Dylan if he hadn't expropriated melodies and concepts himself during every phase of his career.
In some ways, the comparison is as unfit as the Mathers-Oberst reckoning.
Connor Oberst is not the new Bob Dylan, and such a firm comparison will inevitably delude the legacy of both. On Digital Ash's "Light Pollution," Oberst waxes nostalgic about listening to "old folk songs about the government" in the basement of John A. Hobson, a former socialist who escapes his own Dylan-esque "My Back Pages" torment only through death. Dylan wrote those folk songs, and Oberst was listening and interpreting
But, as these discs prove, Oberst isn't imitating anybody. Rest assured, though, people will be imitating him for decades to come. He's got his soldiers, after all.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3