I admit it: I accepted the assignment to review Bright Eyes’ two new releases with no expectation to like them. In fact, part of me wanted to hate these albums, even if that should be the sacred sin of any reviewer worth his salt.
You see, I managed to avoid anything Conor Oberst, the mastermind behind the Bright Eyes name, has done before. I admire his DIY ethic and (temporary) refusal to play ball with Clear Channel, but the hype train has been in full force with this guy for many years, and I’ve been reluctant to jump on it, for fear of running into Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional along the way.
Also, I’m skeptical of any aspiring artist who’s branded a Boy Wonder, which in critic-speak means his work is loaded with faults we’re willing to overlook because he’s young and so damn talented. The mental image of his concerts distress me — call me closed-minded, but I have little desire to participate in a communal event more akin to a cult gathering: teenagers rapturously hanging on every drunken word their leader warbles out, gratefully accepting whatever crumbs their Desolate Messiah gives them. I’ll take the Led Zeppelin cover band, thank you very much.
There’s also the matter of the man behind the moniker: Oberst, a guy who’s never met a simile he didn’t like and whose only current competition for the Frank Zappa Memorial Hubris Award is Ryan Adams, is one cocky bastard. I wouldn’t necessarily mind this stance if his music didn’t have a reputation of being so precious. And don’t you know he’s also the next Bob Dylan?
So I spin the first of his two new LPs, the largely acoustic I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, with critical daggers armed and ready. Oberst obliges by doing his best Arlo Guthrie impersonation, offering a 90-second spoken word introduction to the surreal “At the Bottom of Everything”. He’s talking about a plane crashing into the sea in between sips of something (given his reputation, probably alcoholic) and when he gets around to playing a jamboree with his guitar, comes to the conclusion that “he’s really no one”. An inauspicious beginning, though I’ll award some bonus points to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James for some nifty backing vocals.
Things improve a bit with “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now”, which features the first of three appearances by Emmylou Harris. It’s a pleasant little folk ditty, one I thoroughly enjoyed when I first heard it on my Gram Parsons records — if you’re going to make a loving tribute to those old country-rock albums, you may as well go straight to the source, I guess.
Then we come to “Old Soul Song”, and for the first time (but certainly not the last), Oberst opens my eyes. The jubilant arrangement and his impassioned vocal jumpstarts a collection of songs that turns out to be an astonishingly mature, flawlessly paced and musically satisfying listen.
Oberst must have known that the free pass critics have contented themselves to give him because of his age would soon be coming to an end. Ten years into his recording career, it was time for him to lay his cards on the table and deliver a masterpiece, one devoid of the emotional immaturity and self-indulgence that dogged prior efforts. He just might have accomplished it with I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, an album that’s the sound of an artist finally catching up with his talent, the sound an artist making The Leap from simply a Boy Wonder to Legitimate Artist.
What impresses me about Oberst here — with few lapses — is his ability to express his emotion through some genuinely thought-provoking imagery which is devastating without being maudlin. As Oberst strums through verse after world-weary verse on “Landlocked Blues”, he harmonizes with Harris in beautiful tandem: “We made love on the living room floor / With the noise in the background from a televised war / And in the deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say / If we walk away, they’ll walk away.”
A few moments later, a trumpet plays a theme that’s both mournful and triumphant. It’s a seismic moment, one that the entire album seems like it’s been building up to. If the LP’s first half saw Oberst taking some tentative steps toward making The Leap, he’s achieved it completely by the end of “Landlocked Blues”.
Then there’s the album’s closer, “Road to Joy”, another thinly-veiled anti-war lament. Consider this loaded verse, which Oberst sings into sweet oblivion right as his assembled band prepares to explode behind him: “So when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing / It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win / And no one’s sure how all of this got started / But we’re gonna make ’em goddamned certain how it’s gonna end!”
You tell ’em, Conor. And don’t let anyone give you crap for copping Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, either.
As a matter of course, I’m Wide Awake’s companion piece, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, doesn’t fare as well. Laden with synth flourishes and programmed beats courtesy of producer Mike Mogis and the Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello, it requires a more concerted effort by the listener to appreciate, one that doesn’t totally pay off on those efforts. Not only that, but it tips its hand too early, frontloading its best songs and rendering the second half excessive and ponderous.
Everything great about I’m Wide Awake — its stripped-down intimacy, vitality, and general lack of excess — is shielded on Digital Ash by the effects, which exist mostly because Oberst wants them to, not because they necessarily belong there. The result is something that’s interesting instead of essential; an experiment as opposed to an artistic statement. Such is the danger with releasing albums simultaneously: taken by itself, Digital Ash is a very good piece of music, but when placed next to I’m Wide Awake, its faults are magnified by several degrees.
Sometimes this approach works, as on the Rhythm of the Saints-era Paul Simon homage “Arc of Time” or its masterfully segmented centerpiece “I Believe in Symmetry”. On both, the studio tricks actually work to Oberst’s advantage, lending their simple melodies an added texture that resonates with the listener. The dystopic Alice in Wonderland fable “Down in a Rabbit Hole” dissolves into a spellbinding miasma of strings, electric guitar distortion and massive drum fills straight out of “When the Levee Breaks”.
But for every successful experiment, there’s another that doesn’t quite make the grade. A baby starts crying midway through “Ship in a Bottle” for no discernible reason, and “Theme from Pinata” never latches onto a worthwhile melody. Only the propulsive “Light Pollution” rises above the morass of the last handful of songs. Not surprisingly, it’s the most straightforward cut on the LP, and maybe the only instance of the production complementing the song, rather than the other way around.
So the only remaining question is the one that’s always asked with any double album — would it have benefited Oberst to take the best tracks off each album and released them as one coherent package? I reckon not — the two albums are so stylistically different that they should stand on their own.
Together, though, they should elevate Oberst, for better or worse, into the big leagues of American songwriters. And while I don’t think he’s the next Dylan or Springsteen or even Jeff Tweedy, maybe he’d be content to know he’s occupied a permanent spot on my CD shelf, right in between David Bowie and Broken Social Scene. Welcome aboard, Conor. Didn’t think you’d make it.