Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Ben F. Tarnoff
02/11/2005 | Harvard Crimson | Album Review
Conor Oberst is the hottest little indie duckling around. Over the past few years, Oberst's Bright Eyes project has peddled his singular brand of disingenuous melancholy all the way to the gatekeeper of the musical elite: Maxim's Blender magazine. His Omaha-based label Saddle Creek have hosted a handful of similarly insipid alt-rockers, many of whom, like The Faint or Rilo Kiley, have recently met Mammon's warm embrace. Adored by hordes of sobbing alterna-teens, Oberst has generated an elaborate cult of personality that often obscures the mediocrity of his music. Photographs of his skinny indie-bod and endearing bedhead hair frequently appear in the music press, which predictably enough, has gone apeshit over his weepy singer-songwriter crooning (as if atoning for the loss of Elliott Smith). Thanks to their relentless firehose of hype, Oberst has become the pouty poster boy for an uninspired mass of faux-alternative artists whose gentle yet tearful lyrical confessions sell millions of records to disaffected youth squealing, "I want my MTV2!" And their duct-taped wallets are just twitching for Bright Eyes' latest two albums, released simultaneously as Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake It's Morning.
It's hard to tell how much of the music in Digital Ash is electronically produced and how much of it is just Oberst's studio band. Either way, there's much more here (and somehow, much less) than a boy and a guitar: the mix is thick with drums, synthesized instrumentation, and gee-wiz effects. The first track, "Time Code," opens with two minutes of electronic noodling accompanied by bizarre background panting, presumably from an onanistic Oberst. Just in case the avant wheezing didn't let you know how arthouse the album is, there are eleven more masturbatory songs of offbeat hooks and carefully gauged dissonance to drive home the point. Unfortunately, no matter how much of his nosecandy fund he throws at studio time, Digital Ash is neither interesting nor inspired, and its absurdly polished sound makes Bright Eyes come off as a third-rate Depeche Mode.
In contrast to the whizzing machinery and artifice of Digital Ash, Wide Awake features Bright Eyes' signature folk-country ballads. Oberst cashes in on his heartland roots to deliver ten tracks of white boy blues, twanging along to song titles like "Old Soul Song" and "Another Travelin' Song." While the album is much more singer-songwriter oriented than Digital Ash, many of the songs include a fair amount of accompaniment from the mandolin, the harmonica or the organ. Country legend Emmylou Harris sings back-up vocals on three of the tracks ("We Are Nowhere And It's Now," "Another Travelin' Song," and "Landlocked Blues"), and their collaboration produces what is easily the album's best music.
Working with a successful mainstream artist like Harris relaxes Oberst's alt-country pretensions somewhat, resulting in a few unapologetically fragile songs. But these tracks are still a far cry from the music of Oh Holy Fools or even Lifted, severely lacking in the deep-blush emotional candor of his earlier work. The single off of I'm Wide Awake, "Lua," is clearly an attempt to reintroduce that sense of sincerity. Oberst sings "Lua" without any kind of accompaniment, going for the quiet, tortured style he had delivered so effectively on previous albums. And while the song is beautiful, it's a rough fit with the rest of the album, and feels like much more a half-hearted throwback than anything else. Oberst has bought into his own personality cult, and as a result, his homegrown pretensions, once endearing, become unbearable. The first track begins by recounting the story of some victim of a plane crash in his romantic-comedy-awkward style, before launching into the song itself. Oberst gets the point across with characteristic subtlety: he's a storyteller, dammit!
For all their press and production, both Bright Eyes albums are really nothing more than lowest-common-denominator pop music. Oberst's invocation of the American singer-songwriter tradition is particularly frustrating, as he exploits all of its rhetoric without achieving any of its art. His Nebraska never stank of cowdung, and his scrawny middle-class heartbreak is as trite as it is insincere. Fans of Bright Eyes should stop settling for less, ditch the poseur, and celebrate the genuinely talented songwriters this country has been producing for decades, from Woody Guthrie to Lou Barlow.


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