Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Edward Malkmus
08/07/2006 | | | Album Review
For all of its highlights, Bright Eyes' breakthrough album, Lifted, was a sprawling mess, a record where experimental pop songs sat uncomfortably next to rambling country numbers. Bright Eyes' core member, Conor Oberst, certainly had the skill to pull off multiple musical styles, but the sounds were too disparate to work together. Thankfully, Oberst addresses this problem with his follow-up – err, follow-ups – to Lifted. Instead of releasing another epic-length, overly eclectic hodgepodge, he's divided his recent recordings into two different albums, organized by genre.

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, then, is Oberst's traditional folk and country record. In the past, his Americana songs had been too amateurish to work; they were so saturated with twang and country clichés that it sounded as if Oberst was satirizing the material. It didn't help that Oberst's songs already relied heavily on two of his own gimmicks: angsty lyrics exploring depression, heartbreak and self-loathing, and his over-the-top vocal delivery, a timid quiver that inevitably built to an "emotional" caterwauling scream.

With maturity, though, Oberst is realizing he's too strong a songwriter to fall back on those adolescent songwriting tricks, and he's eased up on the theatrics. His delivery is still passionate enough to please longtime fans, but now its gentle enough not to alienate older, traditional Americana audiences, who will likely be inclined to check out the album after hearing its positive buzz, and the oft-repeated, but surprisingly valid comparisons of Oberst to a young Bob Dylan.

The presence of one-time Dylan collaborator Emmylou Harris on several tracks will only strengthen those comparisons; it was likely intended to. Though her folk-icon status lends the album Americana credibility, her shrill, overpowering vocals are one of the album's few weak spots. Otherwise, Wide Awake is Bright Eyes' finest hour, and each of these ten tracks is a winner. Oberst's lyrics, while not as showy as before, are as strong as ever: simple but pure observations about love and American life, put in perspective by occasional references to a war occurring in the background. Even Dylan wasn't this good at melding the personal and the political.

Wide Awake's final track, "Road to Joy," doesn't just end the record with a bang, it ends with a shot heard around the world. It's a furious anti-war statement – the record's only overt one – where Oberst works his band into a frenzy, while facetiously hollering pro-war slogans. It's an appropriately climactic ending to a near-perfect album.

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is a lighter outing than its masterful counterpart, but as such offers some charms of its own. This is Bright Eyes' full-band record, a collection of pop songs defined by its slick, trend-of-the-moment production. "Time Code" opens the album with an industrial soundscape that would be at home on a Depche Mode track, before abruptly ending with a ringing alarm clock straight from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

The emphasis is then placed on breezy pop fare – not necessarily the glitch-pop popularized by the Postal Service, but the experimental electro-pop that occasionally surfaced on Bright Eyes' b-sides. The sound is unapologetically catchy, and showcases Oberst's knack for dynamic arrangements – songs stop and start dramatically; strings come in at just the right moment.

With it's busy, trend-of-the-minute production, Digital Ash is a lot like a mid-'80s Cure record: It will likely age very poorly, but for now its too stylish and fun to completely dispel. It's perfect for listening to while lying on a bed, staring at the ceiling and relating to the songs on a superficial level. With the right single, the album could even become a sizeable crossover hit, but, compared to Wide Awake's three-course, gourmet meal, Digital Ash is just a pleasant after-dinner mint.