- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

Bright Eyes

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning;

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Saddle Creek

With his dual, not to say dueling, CD releases today, Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes, the indie-rock band in which he’s the only constant, hits on a formula that fans of Wilco might wish their favorite band would try: one disc of straightforward alt-country and another of electronica-tinged modern rock.

Listeners can take one, leave the other, or take both and show off their eclectic bona fides.

Unlike discrete co-releases of the past — such as Guns N’ Roses’ “Use You Illusion” tandem and Bruce Springsteen’s “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” — one can’t say of “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” and “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” that there’s a single great album lurking between them. Both are coherently realized, if dotted with so-so songs. Good luck IPodding them together for your best-of dream mix.

Mr. Oberst, 24 but old at heart, with death frequently on the brain, seems to be out to prove the durability of the singer-songwriter form for Gen-Y’ers. These are his most disciplined albums and also his most confident.

“I could have been a famous singer/if I had someone else’s voice,” he sings with deliberate irony: Everyone knows it’s precisely his voice — raw and cutting to fans, affected and showy to critics — that sets Mr. Oberst apart from the indie-rock throng.

Where Mr. Oberst’s lodestar, Bob Dylan, made do with a limited voice, Mr. Oberst goes out of his way to make his sound crackingly imperfect.

On “Morning,” Mr. Oberst reins in the vocal histrionics of past efforts; he is rootsy and reverent. His duets with singer Emmylou Harris (“Another Travelin’ Song” is an excellent mud-kicker) and spiky political poems (“Old Soul Song,” “Land Locked Blues”) are corded to the post-Woodstock acoustic music of the early ‘70s.

“Morning” brings with it a guarded optimism. “First Day of My Life” finds hope in a new relationship, while the sleepy “Lua,” featuring nothing but Mr. Oberst and an acoustic guitar capoed high up the neck, is more of a hangover than a fresh start. “What is simple by the moonlight/by the morning never is,” he hums in one of several engaging couplets.

“Morning’s” country-Western mood is augmented by a host of outside contributors, including Norah Jones collaborator Jesse Harris on guitar; Mike Mogis on mandolin and pedal-steel guitar; and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James singing a honeyed high harmony on the galloping “At the Bottom of Everything.”

Mr. Oberst, one of last year’s Vote for Changers, can be snotty at times. Having relocated from Omaha, Neb. to New York’s hip-centric East Village, he directs occasional scorn at the hypocritical hayseeds he left behind (especially on “Road to Joy,” which, by the way, grandiosely appropriates a famous Beethoven melody).

More often than not, though, Mr. Oberst’s lyrics are gems of novelty; there were enough surprising rhymes that I found myself waiting urgently to hear how each verse would resolve.

“Digital” is heavier, thematically, than “Morning.” Its jagged guitars and tranquilizing synthesizers create a shivery, futuristic atmosphere. As its title hints, Mr. Oberst’s narratives turn toward themes of death, cracking the code of existence and all that heady stuff. “Digital” mentions dying, heaven and hell as often as its counterpart mentions “morning.”

On the best track of the set, the buoyant, Paul Simon-worthy “Arc of Time,” Mr. Oberst tilts at Christian metaphysics: “I hear if you make friends with Jesus Christ/You will get right up from that chalk outline.” Missing in the eternal bliss of the afterlife, he teases, are “whiskey slurs and blond-haired girls.”

“Digital’s” departing image is of Mr. Oberst “listening for patterns of sound in an endless static sea” — an apt metaphor for this young singer-songwriter’s bleak, yet oddly hopeful, opinion of life and pop careerism.

He has been at this, amazingly, for 10 years already. Maybe he’ll cheer up after turning 40.

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