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Bright Eyes, Big City

 

Bright Eyes: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Saddle Creek, 2005

Rating: 3.8

   

Bright Eyes: Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Saddle Creek, 2005

Rating: 3.3

 

Posted: January 24, 2005

By Laurence Station

Conor Oberst has crafted not one but two albums relating his experiences upon moving to New York City. Clearly, the Nebraska-born singer-songwriter wanted to capture the scary, exhilarating, depressing and often bewildering sense of big-city life -- and, being the ambitious type, decided to record two CDs' worth of material exploring the transition.

The stronger of the pair, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, is Oberst's stripped down, urban-cowboy slant on the Big Apple; the second, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, is less obvious, over-produced and (regrettably) heavily dependent on synth-powered '80s grooves. Oberst's skill as a songwriter has improved since his last effort, and, at least on I'm Wide Awake, the not-yet 25-year-old displays a mastery of material, a reigning in of indulgences that promises stronger work to come. Digital Ash doesn't entirely undo all the good of I'm Wide Awake, but it proves that Oberst is still going through artistic growing pains, attempting to define an musical identity that encompasses his myriad interests without coming across as too scattershot or unfocused.

I'm Wide Awake skillfully captures the intense isolation felt by a newcomer to a bustling metropolis -- total disconnection from friends and familiar things. "Train Under Water" finds Oberst apologizing to an acquaintance for missing a get-together because he always gets lost when he leaves the Village. "Lua" is a depressing look at the shallow, drug-fueled dating scene ("The love I sell you in the evening by the morning won't exist"). "We Are Nowhere And It's Now," a gloomy ballad with Emmylou Harris, conveys an amorphous malaise, like being in an indefinable funk that keeps you in bed all day with the covers pulled over your head.

"Landlocked Blues" is an overstated anti-war polemic that spouts the less than inspiring line "If you're still free / Start running away." The highpoint comes at the end with "Road To Joy," an energized kiss-off to the depressive outlook, like beating back the dark clouds with a sonic discharge. (The lone throwaway moment belongs to "First Day Of My Life," an unmemorable, Beatle-esque ditty that seems out of place with the hangdog mood permeating the rest of the album.) By the time I'm Wide Awake comes to a close, Oberst gets a grip on his new surroundings, and ends his musical odyssey on an appreciatively positive note.

Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, meanwhile, is lyrically obsessed with time and death, and musically infatuated with bad music from the 1980s -- which adds up to an at times intriguing but not wholly satisfying album. The jaded romanticism of "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" isn't particularly fresh (especially with its trundling percussion and surging choruses), but it at least provides a pulse in comparison to the digital chill enveloping the preceding tracks.

Digital Ash misses more than it hits. "Gold Mine Gutted" name-checks acclaimed New York author Don DeLillo as Oberst announces his move to the city, which he then equates with speed, anxiety and sleeplessness ("We hurry to our deaths") over jittery beats and gauzy electronics. Worshipping at the porcelain altar gets a high-gloss finish on the swinging "Hit The Switch," while "Devil In The Details" finds Oberst trying on a lounge singer's outfit to no appreciable effect, and "Arc Of Time (Time Code)" imagines computers unlocking the code to immortality -- for better or worse. Fittingly, the closing, buoyed "Easy/Lucky/Free" ends with what sounds like the tape melting, signifying the terminal end of the recording process.

The prolific Oberst has never been burdened with writer's block. If anything, like Ryan Adams, he's got too many ideas competing for his eager expression. I'm Wide Awake proves that he has the chops and acumen to assemble a consistently engaging collection of material. Digital Ash, however, is its dark twin, revealing what happens when the singer and songwriter overreaches his ambitions.

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 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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