All great artists struggle with their audiences. Inevitably, with every confident step forward, old flag-wavers will be left behind, hopefully replaced by new converts. From Dylan to U2 to Wilco, challenging one's loyal fanbase seems to be a rite of passage to further greatness. When I caught Bright Eyes in concert last September, group mastermind Conor Oberst was going through such growing pains.
Weaned on his bleeding-heart-on-sleeve bedroom poems scraped through with pain and loss, many of the young Brooklynites in attendance were there to be active, angst-ridden participants and enjoy some company with their misery not just watch a singer on a stage. So, when Nebraska's favorite indie-rock son whispered into "An Attempt to Tip the Scales," a typically dour rumination on death, love and alcohol from 2000's Fevers & Mirrors, Oberst's devout followers began to accompany softy at first, then louder his signature wobbly vocals. But this was not to be another emo-cult sing-along.
"Sorry," blurted out the 24-year-old troubadour as he abruptly halted the song, "But you guys are going to make me feel like Dashboard Confessional."
Sure, this was no "Judas" moment. After all, the mildly scolded singers didn't even boo the quip, they laughed along with it and at sad-sack Dashboarder Chris Carrabba. But the remark showed a self-assured confidence whereas most artists dream of their audiences singing back to them, Oberst was shunning it.
To his credit, the slight, photo-ready Omaha native has always been a few tiers above the emo counterparts he's sometimes lumped with and, with each successive album, his vaulting ambition and keen lyrics have only gotten grander and sharper. Yet, even after 2002's sprawling Lifted or the Story Is in the Soilů, one would be hard pressed to predict the artistic leap of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the young songwriter's most ambitious and rewarding statements to date.
With its homey, patchwork cover art depicting a New York City skyline, Morning chronicles Oberst's move from the lonesome Midwest to the eye-opening yet still lonesome big city over finely crafted, country-tinged acoustic backdrops. Given Oberst's half-empty tendencies, it should come as no surprise that Gotham's 8-million-people-but-nobody-to-talk-to ethos plays a large role on Morning. But the carefully manicured instrumentation also allows for moments of springtime-in-the-park loveliness. The twee, old-tyme twang of "Train Under Water" references the city's famed public transportation system as it lilts along an "all-night avenue," while the stately "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)" abstractly considers the organized confusion of 2003's anti-war rally. Backed by swelling horns and pedal steel, Oberst sings-then-screams the refrain "They go wild," gloriously trying to recreate the beatific sense of protest in song.
The singer's newly acute sense of political awareness surfaces on one of three songs featuring the lofty, soulful harmonies of Emmylou Harris, "Landlocked Blues." Oberst lives up to the next-Dylan hype on the folky parable, tempering his idealistic, liberal views with brutal reality in lines like, "There's kids playing guns in the street/ And one's pointing his tree branch at me/ So I put my hands up, I say enough is enough, if you walk away I'll walk away/ And he shot me dead."
Though this new political bent shows a heightened sense of maturity and substance,
two of Morning's best tracks are poignant, unabashed love songs. "Poison
Oak" tells of a fraternal bond between a young Oberst and a big-brother figure.
Channeling the innocence of days gone by ("When a telephone was a tin can on
a string" and "I was young enough, I still believed in war"), he laments a dear
departed, larger-than-life role model. Musically, the song's understated crescendo
soaks every last bit of emotion out of Oberst's love-it-or-hate-it warble. The
contributions of perennially overlooked producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis
cannot be ignored. Throughout the album, Mogis' intimate touch gives every song
a distinct lived-in quality. His heart-wrenching pedal-steel work adds depth
to several songs and gives "Poison Oak" a weeping resonance.
"First Day of My Life," a stark ode to love and all of its immaculate confusions, sees Oberst stripped of everything but his own overexposed feelings. He manages to sidestep blunt sentimentality thanks to the song's sparse arrangement and his austere, genuine way with words. "I'd rather be working for a paycheck than waiting to win the lottery," he sings delicately as the muted thump of an upright bass carefully propels everything forward. Notably, this workmanlike view faintly contradicts a previous Oberst love-as-lottery metaphor. On Lifted's "Waste of Paint," he sang, "Will my number come up eventually?/ Like love is some kind of lottery/ Where you can scratch and see what is underneath/ It's 'sorry' just one cherry, 'play again,' get lucky." No longer wanting to necessarily get rich quick, Oberst shows a patience and eloquence in terms of love that filter throughout Morning as he dissects the big questions of faith, death, war, lost childhood and incoming adulthood with startling aplomb.
A different album in most every way, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn feels
claustrophobic, dark and cold in comparison to the organic, effortless Morning.
Its mostly-instrumental avant-Radiohead-esque opener, "Timecode," sets the mood
with its insulated, womb-like sonics made-up of distant keyboard tones, distorted
breathing sounds and an undulating heartbeat. Filled with heavy, near-tribal
double-drum beats, ominous strings, echoey vocals, chanting back-ups, and downcast
songs about death and decay, the record depicts the post-honeymoon relationship
between Oberst and his new surroundings. Not as consistent as its de facto partner, Digital
Ash still contains several euphoric highs.
Ever the eager prodigy, Oberst may lose some songcraft amidst the gothic grandiosity
of Digital Ash, but its failures are at least intriguing, in part due
to the disc's uniquely pristine production. Part new-wavey pop, part Velvet Underground
and part avant-goth dreamscape, Digital Ash is ultimately unique in its
own dark-alley way. Though sometimes ambitious to a fault, some of the album's
most astonishing tracks occur with the "shadow symphony" lever on full tilt.
Case in point: The disc's stunning, overachieving centerpiece, "I Believe in Symmetry." Starting off simply enough with Oberst singing over a plaintive keyboard, the track soon segues into an army of crunchy guitars and marching snares. Then, at the two-minute mark, everything goes wondrously widescreen with the help of guest Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who's in full-on "Maps" guitar-wail mode. But, of course, there's more. The droning guitar merges into a wall of cascading strings as Oberst cries of transcendent submission. "There's happiness in death," he sings, raising himself above the cacophony. Remarkably, every chime and bow comes together a five-and-a-half-minute masterpiece.
The Lewis Carroll-inspired "Down a Rabbit Hole" follows a similar orchestral-epic
formula, though its eerie feedback offers a more sinister air. "Light Pollution,sdf" the
most traditionally rocking cut, is the closest Digital Ash comes to Oberst's
other band, the socially conscious, plug-and-play Desaparecidos. The song is
upbeat and lively, but its focus is death. Seemingly, the track is a eulogy to
a close friend as well as the iconoclastic anti-capitalist spirit ("John A. Hobson
was a good man," sings Oberst, referencing the famed turn-of-the-century British
socialist). He goes on to detail a friend's fatal accident with grace and empathy, "Maybe
he lost control fuckin' with the radio/ But I bet the stars seem so close at
the end." Touching yet unsentimental, tragic yet hopeful, the song encapsulates
much of Oberst's achingly sincere, unironic allure.
The uncharacteristically wistful "Theme From Pinata" glides along on the strength
of brushed drums and a sprightly flute solo, but less focused tracks like the
meandering "Devil in the Details" and the album's plodding end-note, "Easy/Lucky/Free," weigh
the whole endeavor down slightly. Aside from a few prior bizarre, noodly lo-fi
hints here and there, Digital Ash is an unexpected, experimental left
turn for the adventurous songwriter, and as such it qualifies as a gutsy success.
Considering all of the hype and pomp surrounding him, Oberst doesn't seem to
be succumbing to self-righteousness just yet. "I'm a goddamn hypocrite," he confesses
on Digital Ash's "Hit the Switch." On Morning's "We Are Nowhere
and It's Now," he reflexively questions his own countless doomsday tropes when
he calmly hums, "And
if you swear that there's no truth and who cares, why do you say it like you're
Even after he shushed his fans back in September, the boyish Midwesterner had to surrender to his own humility later on that evening when he forgot some of the words to one of his own cyclical, tongue-twisting folk songs. The crowd delicately nudged him along, whispering the missing lyrics until their fallible idol once again caught up. The snafu proved that, even as he takes large leaps forward as an artist, Oberst's inevitable warts will continue to show while his fans sing along (possibly to themselves). But as long as he can maintain an attractively conflicted mix of death-obsessed pessimism and faith-not-God optimism, he's sure to attract new, equally mixed-up audiences for years to come.
Digital Ash gets a "7" rating.