Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Brendan Joel Kelley
02/10/2005 | Phoenix New TImes | Feature
It was bound to happen, but still took me by surprise. In the February 1 New York Post's infamous Page Six, there was my homie Conor in the "Sightings" section. "Lou Reed backstage at Town Hall congratulating indie darling Conor Oberst on his band's third straight sold-out show there." As Bright Eyes, with whatever collection of musicians he's chosen to help materialize his prolific songwriting output -- each record and tour has featured different musicians, and sometimes only Conor himself -- I've watched Conor go from a gawky teenage kid who'd crash on my couch and smoke resin we'd scrape from my bong to a bold-faced name in the nation's premier gossip sheet, a name that gets mentioned in the same breath as legends like Reed, Dylan, Michael Stipe, and Bruce Springsteen.

I first heard Bright Eyes when the 2000 EP Every Day and Every Night came in the mail years back. It's a stunning little collection of six songs, including "A Perfect Sonnet," an aggressively strummed expression of disgust for romance. Not long after, Bright Eyes released Fevers & Mirrors, an epic LP brimming with microscopically introspective tunes where Conor sounds like he's crying half the time, voice trembling as he gasps lines like, "You said you hate my suffering and you understood, and you'd take care of me. You'd always be there -- where are you now?"

After Fevers & Mirrors, I knew I wanted to meet this kid almost six years my junior who could write so many lines that made my own poetic endeavors feel pedestrian. I did a piece on Bright Eyes for this paper, and when the band hit town, I offered to let the members crash at my place. Conor is an unprepossessing kid, funny and warm-hearted, not the reclusive tortured artist you might expect. We sat up late drinking Old Grand-Dad whiskey from a plastic half-gallon bottle and getting high, talking about music and Bright Eyes' ascending star -- Conor had recently met Michael Stipe, and talked about the awe he felt; now, five years later, Bright Eyes is preparing to tour Australia with R.E.M. after its North American swing.

In the years since then, we've shared drinks just about every time Bright Eyes has swung through town, and I've amassed a collection of Conor's work that probably rivals anyone's outside of his immediate circle back in Omaha (four seconds short of 19 hours of music on my hard drive). Conor released the album that propelled him and his Saddle Creek Records homies to the pages of Time magazine, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, in 2002, and brought an entourage of 12-plus musicians with him on tour to actualize the lush orchestration of the record.

Now, the mainstream media are saturated with Conor's image again -- headlines splashing variations on the "greatest songwriter of his generation" theme -- thanks to the recent release of two separate albums, the beautifully acoustic I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, which features Emmylou Harris harmonizing on three tracks, and the more rhythmic and electronic Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.

Fact is, the attention is absolutely warranted, though hard-core fans like me resent the notion that we should share Conor with Blender readers. Not only did the respective singles from the two recent albums -- "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" from Digital Ash, and "Lua" from I'm Wide Awake -- premiere at the number one and two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in mid-November (the first time an artist has held both spots since Puff Daddy in 1997), but the two full-lengths are collectively his finest output. The "Lua" single is worth the price for the B-side "True Blue" alone, a clever and sweet little ode to keeping it real that could pass for the text of a children's book.

While I'm Wide Awake It's Morning has gained the most accolades from the music press, I'm partial to the digital and more experimental Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, where Conor sounds more like the endearingly awkward, fragile kid who put out the masterpieces Fevers & Mirrors and Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. He's admitted that Digital Ash is primarily about his fear of death, and it surfaces often, both in his lyrics and in the discomfited beats and rhythms that exist behind his modulations.

Digital Ash is the more self-examining of the two, with Conor autopsying his fears on tracks like "Hit the Switch," where he examines his own crutches, singing, "I'm thinking about quitting drinking again, I know I've said that a couple of times, and I'm always changing my mind . . . but there's this burn in my stomach and there's this pain in my side and when I kneel at the toilet in the morning's clean light sometimes I pray I don't die. I'm a goddamned hypocrite."

Though I prefer Digital Ash, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning is a major milestone for Conor, a beautifully polished acoustic folk album focused on political themes complemented by Emmylou Harris' incredible vocal harmonies. Take one listen to "Landlocked Blues" and you'll agree with my hyperbolic opinion of his talent.

I'm no Lou Reed, but I'll have a bank of congratulations for Conor when he hits the 'Nix. I love the kid like a little brother who's graduated magna cum laude from the school of indie rock without ever considering the conventional route. He's become an icon without ever having been part of the industry machine. To quote his own lyrics back to him, "Kid I don't know much about you, but I like you because you're true blue."


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