Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Joan Anderman
09/03/2006 | Boston Globe | www.boston.com | Feature
A year and a half after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a disheveled 22-year-old Nebraskan walked onstage at the Roxy in Boston and began playing a new song. The song was a simple folk ballad called ``One Foot in Front of the Other," and the singer -- Conor Oberst, performing with his collective Bright Eyes -- whispered and screamed the tune's 14 verses for an audience filled with similarly youthful, scrappy-looking fans. Oberst, a literate wordsmith and acerbic vocalist, is hailed by his devoted following as the indie world's Bob Dylan. But ``One Foot in Front of the Other" was no ``Blowin' in the Wind." Oberst's contribution to the protest-song canon is a rambling, anxious emblem of the post-9/11 rock culture, where nothing quite so concrete as Dylan's flying cannon balls or sailing white doves apply. In Oberst's song, there is no refrain in which to take refuge, no notion of an answer -- even one that floats out of reach on the breeze.

``If you're still free, start running away," Oberst instructed many minutes into the lilting waltz, and his advice seemed terrifyingly sound.

Finding a way to make an individual experience resonate universally has always been a worthy songwriter's stock in trade. At a moment when the value of one person's freedom has become relative to the national security, however, Oberst makes it his job to entirely erase the space between the personal and the political.

``One Foot in Front of the Other" was originally released on a Saddle Creek label compilation in 2003 and then re-recorded with Emmylou Harris (and renamed ``Land Locked Blues") for Bright Eyes' 2005 album ``I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning." The latter is a spare, haunted version. There's no buoyant piano, no gentle percussion to distract us from Oberst's troubled panorama, where romantic conflict and global conflict are woven into a single narrative. ``We made love on the living room floor/ With the noise in the background/ From a televised war/ And in that deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say/ If we walk away, they'll walk away."

What an extraordinary image, and how apropos of a generation coming of age post-9/11. Danger is ever present, and the threat is so enmeshed in our daily lives that acts as intimate as lovemaking and brutal as warfare are fused -- and confused. They're no longer unrelated events that happen to be unfolding simultaneously, worlds apart; they're happening in the same room.


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