Album Reviews

Bright Eyes – Digital Ash In A Digital Urn / I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning

(Saddle Creek) UK release date: 24 January 2005

Bright Eyes - Digital Ash In A Digital Urn / I'm Wide Awake It's Morning There’s a website on the net, with a quiz devoted to asking ‘Which Bright Eyes Song Are You?’. Answer a series of questions, with wildly different responses, and the computer will generate its answer. That such a generator exists speaks volumes of Bright Eyes, aka Conor Oberst, prodigious output and his almost deified standing in American music. Now, the young troubadour who once frolicked with Winona Ryder has released not one, but two, albums on the same day.

There’s always a problem with this – ask Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen – a danger of diluting your designs and the inevitability the two will forever be linked and compared. But then, Bright Eyes has never been an artist to run scared: indeed, with these releases it seems he wants them to stand side by side; two disparate, conversing strands of self.

Of the two, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is the easier to digest and is Oberst’s most commercial release to date. In it he channels his country rock influences in to poetic, witty ballads and heartfelt tales of romance. Oberst kicks off with At The Bottom Of Everywhere – a jaunty, hoedown of a song, until you realise it recounts the last moments of a doomed traveller. The skewing of structure and surrealist edge are prevalent throughout, sharpened by plenty of pedal steel and maudlin brass. Emmylou Harris supplies haunting harmonies along the way, most notably in the gorgeous We Are Nowhere and It Is Now.

But it is hit single Lua that quietly steals the show: an unaffected, intimate slice of storytelling performed acoustically to perfection. While that song topped the American billboards a second Oberst single, Take It Easy, hogged the number two spot. And that second single was taken from Digital Ash In A Digital Urn – the two sitting side by side, inviting comparison once more.

This is the album Oberst chooses to show his experimental side, and it’s this darker, more ominous Bright Eyes I prefer. The album is a swirling mash of dense drum loops, buzzing synths and staccato percussion. With guest musicians including Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, he creates a more barren, less humane landscape than in Wide Awake. The sound-effect laden Time Code sets the scene with striking beats and loops, while Hit The Switch and Arc Of Time continue this theme.

Oberst has been recording since 13; now 24 these albums, perhaps his finest, should signal his coming of age. Yet those rough edges that blighted his earlier work remain. Oberst’s painfully cracked voice – the reedy sound of a man all cried-out, the odd mistake here and there, all add up to give a jot-book scrappiness.

Still, all told, there’s something for every fan. And another 22 songs for the Quizilla generator to choose from.

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More on Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes – Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was
Bright Eyes – A Christmas Album
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
Interview: Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London