Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes has reached the point of his life where he can no longer be deemed a child prodigy. At 24, Oberst has acquired a nearly cultish fan base, critical acclaim and the indie scene’s equivalent to gangsta rap’s ‘street cred.’ Oh, and on top of this, he’s put out a bunch of the most emotionally charged, musically haunting records I’ve heard in the past decade.
Oberst is a Renaissance Man, which is why critics and fans, including myself, anticipated his band Bright Eyes’ release of two new, completely different albums, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” and “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.”
But with anticipation came fear. Would Bright Eyes live up to the glorious past I’d come to love or would I toss the CDs aside and be left with the ever-so clich?d remark, “Their old stuff is so much better”?
This fear haunted me for the past month and nearly made me explode as I violently unwrapped the CDs and decided which to listen to first. “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” won out because, well, there’s no scientific way of explaining these things. It just came first.
Oberst always tells a story in song-form. This time around, with the first song “At the Bottom of Everything,” he literally tells a story using only words but eventually jumps into music as if it’s the only way the story could be properly respected. Strange way to start an album, yes. But slowly telling us of an airplane tumbling out of the sky on the way to a birthday party, as he cynically put it, while leading up to what feels like a campfire sing-along, sounds both natural and eerie.
He meanders from song to song slowly and it flows so elegantly that the listener is left wondering where the time went when it’s all over. Granted, the album has only 10 songs and one could easily beg for more, but they weave into each other so delicately, it’s nearly impossible to listen to just one.
The songs all vary. This is the beauty of the album. As much as it’s Oberst at his typical best, there’s more to it than that. The music is happy and sad, regretful and reminiscent. There’s life with the death and love with the loss. Oberst has tapped into his emotions to a point the listener hasn’t experienced until now. And the picture it creates is more vivid because of it.
In “First Day of my Life,” Oberst sings of love in a charming and, dare I say, optimistic manner. It’s a change from nearly every other song he’s written yet fits in the album well. Then, he flips it right back around on “Landlocked Blues,” repeating “If you walk away, I’ll walk away,” which feels, strangely enough, like glorious, gut-wrenching defeat.
The other CD, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn,” is more technical and seems somewhat pop-inspired. The theme is death, yet the actual music seems to have life dripping out of every beat.
In “Arc of Time (Time Code),” it’s easy to get caught up, or even stomp around, while Oberst sings “you die you die you die you die.” The beat is reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, but the lyrics are pure Oberst. It’s unique but ultimately familiar.
“I Believe in Symmetry” is another example of Oberst’s repeated analysis of life. The song and its philosophy drift from simple to intense to dreamy to the eventual orchestral end in little more than five minutes. Oberst sings “the instinct of the blind insect/who never thinks not to accept/his faith, that’s faith/there’s happiness in death” so sweetly that the listener is almost too awed by his words to think about their meaning.
While “I’m Wide Awake, it’s Morning” holds its charm in Oberst’s new ground, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” is beautiful because of its details. Some critics call this album a mess and the worst of the two. This is miles away from the truth.
“I’m Wide Awake…” is better because it’s a simply superior package, filled with separate, multicolored pieces that somehow manage to fit together. However, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” is still an amazing album and, rather than being a mess, it sounds precise. The only downfall is the fact that the obvious and repeated use of death as a theme, even though it doesn’t wear out, seems to limit the album a bit.
The albums live up to their reputation and I’d be the last person to say that if it wasn’t true. They explore new terrains for the band while also retaining the comfort of the past. He may not be considered a prodigy anymore, but Conor Oberst still knows how to make good music. That’s all that really matters, isn’t it?