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Album Reviews: Bright Eyes- Digital Ash In A Digital Urn; I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

If he's gonna release two albums on the same day, then I'm gonna review two albums in one post... eleven months after the fact.

Bright Eyes - Digital Ash In A Digital Urn (2005)
Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (2005)


Track Listing for Digital Ash In A Digital Urn:

1. Time Code
2. Gold Mine Gutted
3. Arc Of Time (Time Code)
4. Down In A Rabbit Hole
5. Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
6. Hit The Switch
7. I Believe In Symmetry
8. Devil In The Details
9. Ship In A Bottle
10. Light Pollution
11. Theme From Pinata
12. Easy/Lucky/Free



Track Listing for I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning:

1. At The Bottom Of Everything (with Jim James)
2. We Are Nowhere And It's Now (with Emmylou Harris)
3. Old Soul Song (For The New World Order) (with Emmylou Harris)
4. Lua
5. Train Under Water
6. First Day Of My Life
7. Another Travellin' Song
8. Landlocked Blues (with Emmylou Harris)
9. Poison Oak
10. Road To Joy


Bright Eyes, the Conor Oberst fronted band with interchangeable members, pulled off a bit of a coup in 2004, when two singles from their forth-coming LPs, "Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" took the top two spots on the Billboard Hot Singles chart, a feat not accomplished since Puff Daddy did it in 1997. Bright Eyes aren't exactly big name stars like Diddy is/was, so that raised more than a few eyebrows, bringing more attention to Oberst's next ambitious project: releasing two albums on the same day.

This led to a fair amount of press for the Saddle Creek Records indie-darling, allowing the albums to chart at 10th (I'm Wide Awake) and 15th (Digital Ash), on the Billboard charts, a fair feat for an indie. Except when you stop to notice that the albums were released on January 15th. Here's a tidbit for those who may not know: no one who is anyone releases an album in January. Or February for that matter. Even March is dicey. These are absolute dead times in retail, as consumers are still busy paying off the debts they accrued in December. So this is where most labels dump releases that they don't believe in, and the odd enterprising smaller artist will try and capitalise on the lack of competition for rack space and media time. Which is precisely what I think Bright Eyes did here, to brilliant effect.

Because there are next to no new releases to speak of at the beginning of the year, music publications strain for things to write about in the early months. So Bright Eyes release not one, but two new albums, and suddenly, Oberst is on the covers of magazines, with feature articles in others, and before you know it, everyone is calling him the best American songwriter since Bob Dylan (or, Bruce Springsteen if you prefer...). Which leaves me a little conflicted. On the one hand, I am a fan of Bright Eyes, and do think Oberst to be a brilliant lyricist at times. On the other hand... let's calm down for a moment shall we? One minute, he's the next Chris Carrabba, the next, he's the next John Lennon.

Unfortunately, the evidence behind this sudden light year jump ahead in praise, the acoustic-based I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and the electronic-based Digital Ash in a Digital Urn don't back up these exaggerated claims. Despite their differences in scope and style, each suffers from the same problems, which are the same problems all Bright Eyes albums suffer from.

This is why I have never been able to fully embrace I'm Wide Awake: the very first thing you hear when you play the album is Oberst sipping from a drink, then proceeding to tell a story into the microphone about some lady on a plane. Keep in mind, this is not a live album, so there's no reason for this at all. It relates a bit to the song it introduces, "At the Bottom of Everything", but not so much that you'd miss it if it wasn't there (actually, that's a fair assessment of the song as a whole). Allow me to share with you this epic opener: "So there was this woman and she was on an airplane and she's flying to meet her fiancé sailing high above the largest ocean on planet earth and she was seated next to this man who you know she had tried to start a conversation but really the only thing she heard him say was to order his bloody mary and she's sitting there and she's reading this really arduous magazine article about this third world country that she couldn't even pronounce the name of and she's feeling very bored and very despondent...". And all I can ever think when I start to play this album is "fuck you asshole". And then I almost always skip the track.

Such it is for a Bright Eyes album. Oh so precocious, and way too clever by half. When a Bright Eyes song works, as it does on the singles "Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)", as well as the tracks "We Are Nowhere And It's Now", "Good Mine Gutted", and "Road To Joy" (with its Beethoven lift), the song really works. I'm am a big fan of some Bright Eyes songs. Some are even amongst my favourite songs of all-time. But the guy definitely confuses prolificness with prodigiousness, and would do himself a big favour if he simply learned that not every idea he scratches into his lyrics journal need to be put to wax. Or, if he does want to put his thoughts into song, then he should either A) spend as much time composing musical arrangements as he does tortured prose, or B) get a real band who make real contributions to the evolution and growth of their sound. And no, guest spots by Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jimmy Tamborello of The Postal Service, Emmylou Harris, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket don't count. They may work for a song or two, but they aren't true artistic collaborators, the type who might be in the studio one day and say "hey, Conor, have you noticed that the last three tracks we recorded all kinda sounded the same?".

Of the two albums, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is by far the more polished of the two. If more time had been spent on it, instead of splitting time on the Digital Ash in a Digital Urn project, then it could have really been something special. As it is, the greatness of some of the tracks is dulled by a the mediocrity of other tracks. As for Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, it seems to exist for little other reason than Oberst came up with a killer track in "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" (easily one of my favourites for the year), and didn't think it would fit in with the rest of his catalogue. Certainly, it would have clashed with the style of I'm Wide Awake, but you know what? That's what EPs are for if you don't have an album that fits a song. Don't try to cash in on some of that Postal Service cash by trying to do your own synth pop album. Because you aren't The Postal Service, Bright Eyes, even when you get Tamborello to produce some of your tracks. Which, I suppose suggests that not only is Connor Oberst not the next Dylan, but he has yet to even become the next Ben Gibbard.

As I said earlier, each of these albums have some strong points, but ultimately, each suffers from the same problems all Bright Eyes albums suffer from. That problem is Conor Oberst himself. For all his talent, his art is strangled by his overwhelming need to be an insufferable, pretentious douchebag.

Digital Ash In A Digital Age - 2/5
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning - 3/5

Related:
Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations
The Postal Service - Give Up
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever To Tell
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