Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst is so indie.
Homegrown in Omaha, Neb., he loyally sticks to the small record company he helped establish when he was 13 years old. He says things like, “If there’s anyone who cares about music as an art form, now’s the time to make a change. There will be no more real music anymore if we keep letting people shove it down our f***ing throats.” He even publicly criticized mega-radio conglomerate Clear Channel in a Clear Channel-promoted awards ceremony, inducing someone to spit on him. That’s indie credibility.
With his usual bittersweet acoustic guitar and quiveringly heartfelt vocals, Oberst and Bright Eyes have managed to become quiet stars, with legions of fans who appreciate their unabashed emotion and openness. As always, they’ve tried something new, releasing two very different albums at the same time — the gorgeous “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” and the hit-and-miss “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn.”
They are not packaged together as a double album for a reason: they are wholly different creatures. “Wide Awake” is a great alt-country folk album, on which Oberst does what he does best — make beautifully buoyant ballads driven by the piercing pain of failure and melancholy. The CD features the radiant harmonies of Emmylou Harris, an enhancing addition to Oberst’s complete sincerity. While it lacks the full orchestration of Bright Eyes’ last album, 2002’s “Lifted,” the record is a polished example of simplicity.
Anyone worried that two simultaneous Bright Eyes album would cause an overdose in emotion can take comfort in “Digital Ash,” which is more concerned with experimentation than melodrama. With its electronic-synth tendencies, “Digital Ash” sounds like a side-project, oddly traversing the likes of Postal Service, Radiohead, and Nine Inch Nails. At best, the album is an interesting listening experience, a decently brave attempt at artistic pop and erratic indie-rock.
The best part of “Wide Awake” is the band itself, full of passion and striking honesty. Oberst has a flair for maximum effect with few words, composing salient lines like: “I’d rather be working for a paycheck/ Than waiting to win the lottery” (“First Day of My Life”), and “I have my drugs, I have my woman, they keep away my loneliness/ My parents, they have their religion, but sleep in separate houses” (“Road to Joy.”)
“Wide Awake” begins with Oberst telling a story about a woman on a plane, making the album feel like an intimate live performance, and then jumps into the countrified, quirky, upbeat “At the Bottom of Everything,” a song about redemption in the midst of an airplane crash. From folk tunes to hushed acoustic numbers — punctuated by sudden bursts of Oberst’s ardent and cracking screams — “Wide Awake” is an unexpurgated, organic catharsis.
“Lua” is a fantastic example of Oberst’s ability to elevate a song using just his acoustic guitar and wistful, unrestrained vocals. Over simply tranquil chords, Oberst delicately yearns for simplicity in a relationship full of complexity. In a fan favorite, “First Day of My Life,” Oberst melodically celebrates the day he meets his love over a beautiful guitar riff, maintaining long notes at his own whim.
Emmylou Harris’s blissful harmony lift up “Land Locked Blues” heads above the rest. The melodious folk tune (complete with a fantastic trumpet solo) sounds like it could’ve been written by Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle or even Beck.
“Wide Awake” is an easily lovable album, especially for reflective college students looking for serious music that negotiates romantic pain. My main complaint about the album is that its best songs are all sound alike — even though they are all beautiful.
That’s where “Digital Ash” comes in. A curious musical move for Oberst, the album seems like a Postal Service wannabe — no surprise that its best beats are produced by Postal’s Jimmy Tamborello. The opener, “Time Code,” has no tenable theme (perhaps that’s the art in it), which sets the albums’ random tone. The track is interspersed with interesting synthesized beats and sounds (from screams to bells to glitchy drum beats), over haphazardly indiscriminate phrases (“Death data entry ant hill law.”)
The rest of the album is not as crafted as “Wide Awake,” boasting Oberst’s solo vocals over eccentric rhythms. Sometimes bizarre and jilting (is that a baby crying in the background?), “Digital Ash” is still not without its highlights, which are loaded towards the end of the end of the disc, once you get over the initial strangeness. “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” is a 80s-sounding, crazily catchy track with a repetitively synthesized beat. “Devil in the Details” sounds like “Low”-era David Bowie with a refreshingly rock and roll sound, and “Theme to Pinata” is happily computer-less, soft and organic.
Though it begins with an erratic hybrid of sounds, “Digital Ash” comes nicely together by its end, though it never reaches the graceful heights of “Wide Awake.” Both seem like pure Conor Oberst, because of their self-driven ideas and sharp honesty. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be disappointed by both records. But, if any fans miss the emo of Bright Eyes’ earlier records, they need not worry; at the band’s current rate of five albums in five years, we’ll be hearing something new from them soon enough.