The Cut-Out Bin #6: Bright Eyes, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005)
Generally viewed as a less-than-stellar offering from an otherwise promising young songwriter, the neglected cousin of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is actually a challenging meditation on the dual nature of time.
In January 2005, indie-rock golden boy Conor Oberst simultaneously released two very different CDs: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, an alt-country album featuring backups from Emmylou Harris and Jim James, and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, an "experimental" work venturing into regions of electronica and new wave. The party line in the music press was to adopt Wide Awake as one of the highlights of 2005 while politely dismissing Digital Ash as an interesting failure proving that serious singer-songwriters should stick to their guitars.
They're wrong, of course, as critics generally are when they come to a unanimous agreement on a work without actually listening to it much. Sure, Wide Awake is a pleasure: a polished, lyrical gem that may also be a little easy and limited in its direct, singable grief. And Digital Ash is an awkward, occasionally unpleasant listening experience that cannot even really be called experimental, given that none of its structures of discomfort are particularly new. But it's Digital Ash that digs in its heels on the ideas -- the weirdness of time, the conflict between subjective and objective forms of coherence -- that have informed Oberst's songwriting since at least the time of Fevers and Mirrors, yielding his most fully unified album, thematically and musically.
Digital Ash is an album about time -- how it makes things hang together or fall apart, how we come to tell the difference. The medium of the album is evidently rhythmic. "Gold Mine Gutted" sets up a steady, quasi-techno beat that does not relent until "Theme From Pinata" -- though by "Hit the Switch" it all starts to get a little hazy and atmospheric. Our experience of time, represented here, oscillates between webs of computer binary and the spaces between stars. That is, we have two choices, both of which turn out to be equally beside the point. We are penned in by the urgency and terror of minutiae -- the moment when we "all at once [see] the dust and [hear] every tiny sound" ("Light Pollution"), or we are blown clear into a whole whose order makes a weightlessness of each particular part, from fall leaves to bodies in body bags to satellites blown out of orbit ("Easy/Lucky/Free"); held to the blank grid of incongruous catchiness ("Arc of Time", whose Abba-inflected hook grinds against its black statements) or left with the bare voice pulling against, stumbling over, straining for the rhythm, but never meeting it head on ("Ship in a Bottle"). In either case, we are turned aside from the events of our lives, the personal narrative of birth and marriage and death, in favor of something that never seems to sound in the right place at the right time.
"Ship in a Bottle" begins as a fairly standard, faintly ironic paean to adolescent yearnings ("I wanna be the surgeon that cuts you open and fixes all of life's mistakes"). Once, at the beginning, the songs breaks open on Lemaster's raw, bright alto ("I wanna be your shower in the morning"), which with all that reverb sounds funnelled in from a great distance. But when it shuts down on Oberst's plodding baritone ("I know I'm just the weather against your window") we know we're not going to get out of this by throwing a temper tantrum. It's this that makes "Ship in a Bottle" stand out from Bright Eyes' other songs of love-as-shared-fuck-up, like "Lua" and "Lover I Don't Have to Love". Here, panic and longing seem not to find any release in expression. When Oberst breaks into his wailing register, the supporting instrumentation is almost wholly unresponsive; the guitars go on bashing out the same few chords, the drum is monotonous and insistent. If the trumpet's lyrical legato sounds, at times, almost sympathetic, we can also, particularly in the bridge, detect more than a whiff of mockery.
Like many of the songs on Digital Ash, "Ship in a Bottle" hints at, but eludes, the expected narrative. We note almost in passing that it is about some kind of relationship crisis -- but the particulars seem not to matter. We are either too far above or too far below the level of events -- too involved or too detached -- to know what happens. "Ship in a Bottle" is not a story but a sort of oracle, courtesy of the same divinity that lives in the death of the blind insect and the translation of our lives into the interstellar patternings of digital space. It is not simply that the lyrical mode is almost exclusively indirect and metaphoric ("bacteria breeds on a microscope slide" instead of "don't trust me, I'm famous") but that the whole song seems in contact with some unknown and possibly unknowable finality. The main figure of the song is neither the singer nor the lover to whom it is addressed, but the "something" that gets between earth and sky, between body and body in bed, and of which we seem to know almost nothing. Even in relation to the past, we can only get the truth about it late ("read the newspaper print off the microfiche slide") and at the price of a perpetual suspension ("holding your breath for the rest of your life"). The song asks, Why try to know? And in true oracular style almost answers: "Don't adore what is impossible. We have built this ship in a wine bottle. But if we knew how it worked, we would have to grow old." And, "Don't you love what is intangible? We have built this ship in a wine bottle. But if you knew who I was, you would never grow old." There is a knowledge that makes us fail from dreaming into our only lives of work and kids and houses and the body's running-down-clock. But there is also something else, if you can call it knowledge, by which those lives in turn, fail into unreality. And what we have in this second, fuller failure will not be taken from us. Whatever that's worth.
So Digital Ash is a kind of ecstasy of agnostics. Not the nauseous to and fro of belief and unbelief, but the embrace of two conflicting certainties: the love of earth, and that love as a force that would tear us from earth and all we love there. So it's hardly surprising that the album would have two separate endings, encompassing both.
"Theme to Pinata" is the personal ending -- spare, acoustic, reverb-heavy and full of attachments sentimental, earthbound, and familiar: nature, possibly marriage, certainly home. (We don't realize how long we've been nowhere until Oberst sings "winter came to Omaha" and we are, for the first time on the album, set down in a definite place and time.) All this seems very sincere, the sentimentality fresh and almost penetrating after 40 minutes of unrelenting irony, but it won't be enough and we know it. Who can credit a love pledge in which the closest thing to a commitment is "Don't let me escape"? And sure enough, all that sweetness -- harp, flute and wistful, breathy vocals -- dissolves at the first crystalline sounds of "Easy/Lucky/Free", the abstract, thematic ending of Digital Ash.
Sounds of the night spaces, the hum of distances, then the percussion rolling in as if something has been decided. "Did it all get real? I guess it's real enough," Oberst sings with his usual thick bravado. And we almost start to hear the world come back, if not exactly as action, at least as a determination to face the cultural realities head-on. At the same time, there's a recognition of complicity. Oberst is not simply mocking the American dream, he's offering it as yet another (especially noxious) point where excess and emptiness become indistinguishable. So that the escape to a "condo on the coast", the perfect, nowhere-no-time reunion, the meltdown of a satellite blown out into the absolute, are all marked with the same empty rebound of space, rumble of cymbals. Whatever failure is described in "Easy/Lucky/Free" is common, and both encompasses and goes beyond any culturally contingent mistakes. And yet there is also, some common consolation. Or is that refrain, "don't you weep", purely ironic?
If there is consolation here, it's in the idea of space itself, of an emptiness that is at least unconditioned by human patterns, undeformed by either private sufferings or political failures. Some place where we matter so little we might move as easily, lightly, freely as if we did not exist. Where, at the intersection of too-much/too-little, we hear a kind of hopefulness, or at least relief, in the fade-out: "there is nothing�there is nothing�there is nothing".