Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
Saddle Creek Records
It’s getting harder to pick apart Conor Oberst by splashing in the puddles of sentimental drivel he’s been pissing on the masses for over a decade, but it’s still an indispensable critical pastime. Though his growth into fitting the shoes of a witty and rousing songwriter is undeniable, with each step forward the once endearing flaws in Bright Eyes’ character are becoming more and more of an annoyance. With I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, Oberst offers up two fundamentally divergent records that highlight his evolution from an emotionally feeble child to an emotionally feeble man. Fleshing out his strongest and most problematic traits Wide Awake is a stripped-down return to folk form while Digital Ash carries the artist into a decidedly more electronic future.
Immediately noticeable throughout both records is the absence of the wincing vibrato that has long pulled listeners out of the moment with each go around. Oberst has gained a healthy dose of confidence with his voice which in turn fortifies his songwriting.
Wide Awake opens with a bit of cozy story telling about riding in an airplane that’s plummeting toward the ocean. The impending crash gives rise to a downward spiral of songs about god, love, sex, death, war and enduring them all. Drawing out the last few moments before all is lost “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” opens the gates to a dreamy and heartrending rash of fugue-like reflections. Emmylou Harris’ breezy and Earth-toned vocal harmonies are a sweet and extravagant touch to the indie rock troubadour’s lovelorn caterwauling. And as Earth’s one last caress draws closer her voice takes on a dazzling and allegorical purity. As the record wears on however, she wears out her welcome. Their morose duet singing about making love on the floor while the “televised war” plays out on a TV in the background somehow sums up everything that is wrong with the world in more ways than they could have ever intended.
“Lua” is a sparse and psychologically anemic number that finds Oberst alone, strumming and blubbering away over lost love. In the interest of progress this bout of self-indulgence is the least interesting song on the disc, bundling up all of the baggage from his former glories and lugging them along for the new record. It’s also the one that placed him in the number one slot on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Sales Chart before the record even saw the light of day. On the Hot 100 Bright Eyes is a stranger in a strange land, flanked by the unsavory likes of the Nelly’s, Diddy’s, Britney’s and Ludas of the world. But when a miserable Midwestern kid with an acoustic guitar and an indie budget knocks these glamour shots off the block it speaks volumes about the quality of the product plaguing the airwaves.
That’s not to undermine the honesty and emotion Oberst pours into his songs. It’s precisely this type of fortitude that mainstream music is lacking. But the preciousness of it all wears thin when placed next to budding new songs, like “Another Travelin’ Song” or “Train Under Water.” Or most notably the crashing crescendo of “Road to Joy,” which brings the journey full circle as the sun comes up, evoking the albums title and its impending fate, barefacedly unveiling that it was all just a dream.
…and Electronic Explorations
On the other side of Morning, Digital Ash comes to light with a starry and nocturnal quality that moves Bright Eyes in a genuinely different direction while not losing sight of Oberst’s true character. It would be a misnomer to describe Digital Ash as an “electronic album,” as it is more of a collection of organic sounds being manipulated by electronic means -- any and all similarities to Dylan's "electric albums" is purely coincidental. Or is it precisely calculated?
“Time Code” and “Down A Rabbit Hole” come across as tech-savvy songs, cluttered with bits of random electronic things that go bump in the night. But the overall feel maintains the balance teetering between a gallop and an emotionally drained twinkle. Despite the ultramodern sheen and fantastic production qualities Digital Ash is unmistakably Bright Eyes. “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” is the other song that reached the Hot 100 chart -- reaching the number 2 slot -- adding a cool and Kraftwerkian pop tone to his wavering voice. But soon after “Theme from a Piñata” delivers one of Oberst’s most embarrassing lyrics to date. “I feel like a piñata once you take a swing at me./ If you could just crack the shell open I think inside you would find something sweet.” Say what! That’s enough to make even Morrissey choke on his own vomit. In the post-Dylan landscape of songwriters working their way into the history books Bright Eyes has a clear and unmistakable lead. But any more stumbles like this and he can count himself out of the race.
-- Chad Radford (Published By Flagpole Magazine, Athens, GA, January 2005. Re-edited by Chad Radford)