Bright Eyes, Digital Ashes in a Digital Urn/I'm Wide Awake It's Morning (Saddle Creek)

by Stephanie Duncan

I hate to say I told you so, but many years ago, as a minority emo kid, I was listening to Bright Eyes before you. I reveled in the rawness and the angst that was Conor Oberst. I knew I would not be the first girl to marry him in my head many times and his recent pop status has proven that. No longer underground, this winsome indie boy appears to be capturing hearts all over. I've tried to take an objective look at his two new side-by-side releases. I've tried to remember that a part of me didn't want to eschew Bright Eyes and any part of the sadness that came attached to being a teenager.

First, we'll start with Digital Ashes in a Digital Urn. Well, it's ambitious, I'll give it that. A far cry from past releases. More Postal Service than typical Bright Eyes (not to mention the inclusion of a Postal Service member). There's a sense of noise, as if they just wandered into this project heedlessly not fully realizing the capability of the chaos known as noise. The first track experiments with a nightmarish ambience, bared down to the very core of perhaps Obert's inner most being. Then we launch into the typical breathy, painfully overwrought vocals which are now led by surprisingly light synthesizers and then brutally layered over persistent beats. I believe in the hands of someone else, this may have been pulled off a little cleaner, a little neater. This album, I am told, is supposed to be a polished Oberst. We also have the simplistic drum programs with the deep-voiced harmonies that are, at times, almost percussive. This album focuses more or less on selling Oberst a pop star rather than his natural talent in being tortured. He's happy, kids! Okay, he's not happy, but listen to that synth! That's happy, that beat is happy, why, this album sounds so happy! Drums, everyone loves drums! More drums, play more drums! Hooray!

I can see the way a conversation may play out when discussing the future of Oberst in his records.

"Well, we can make it happy."

"Oh. Definately. Everyone loves drums. And synths. Pop."

"But.. what about the fans. Maybe they want more acoustic."

"Well.. we already signed the guy--"

"Oh, the Postal Service Guy."

"Yeah.. yeah. It'd be unfair.."

"Oh, yeah, totally. Um. Well.. why don't we just make a second record?"

So then we have 'I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning'. Which, if you are a seasoned Bright Eyes listener, is less of a shock. Kind of easing you into the polish up pop stone of a boy. It opens with a sparse monologue of, really, no consequence to me. The rest is typically acoustic but, surprise surprise, not recorded by hand. It has the studio sound, it has some swells of orchestrations and it has his trademark strain otherwise known as a voice. A kind of alt-folk epic. I won't deny that I got a little treat when none other than Emmylou Harris chimed in, gorgeously harmonic.

I suppose this is my summation of the two albums now. I honestly haven't decided yet whether these are a good review or a bad one. I'm tempted to say good. I'm not saying good because everyone else is, though. It's just nice to see Bright Eyes growing up a little, starting to treat their adult listeners with a bit of maturity instead of just catering to sad teenagers. So, the happy is good. The Emmylou Harris is just great.

Yeah. It's a good review.

Feb. 2005