Dylanesque singer-songwriter charts new route to pop greatness with two distinct and startling albums.
I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning / Digital Ash In A Digital Urn
It’s appropriate that Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, was the only youthful talent asked to join Springsteen, Young and co on the recent Vote For Change tour. In many ways he has inherited the New Dylan mantle: a prolific and precocious, politicised yet sensitive singer-songwriter, and a generational figurehead in waiting. As Winona Ryder’s ex and Joaquin Phoenix’s pal, even the gossip columns are his. But in the 21st century, mere talent and fame aren’t enough to secure the longevity of his forebears. The new music business strips musicians of their mystique and power with a piranha-like efficiency even the old Dylan might not have endured. Oberst, with two startling, simultaneous new albums, may have found a fresh way to the summit.
He’s far from a virginally pure indie saint. His floppy-haired, frail good looks, self-consciously tremulous voice, sensitive lyrics and celebrity ex have made him an almost traditional heart-throb to thousands of teenage girls. He’s been called an “emo” pin-up, his songs even slipping onto glossily hip teen soap The OC. And though it bears little relation to the prosaic self-pity of a Dashboard Confessional, Oberst’s angst has its own allure. Springing first from self-disgust worsened when he lost his Jesuit faith at 16, his songs also pulse with an overwrought passion for life. He is like a cleaner-featured, cleverer, more huggable Cobain, offering a path out of adolescent darkness to a braver, freakier new world. The building fascination around him was shown when the new albums’ singles hit No 1 and 2 in the same week’s US sales chart. Even in a nation where singles sales are negligible, this Beatle-esque statistic from someone so deep underground astonished.
The key to Oberst is his background in Omaha, Nebraska’s music scene, where gigs in musicians’ homes are common and, a world away from LA, local support networks grow necessarily deep. Oberst was nudged on stage aged 12 by the scene’s first kings, Lullaby For The Working Class, and had quietly released 150 songs by the age of 20. The city’s Saddle Creek label has grown around him and other local successes like The Faint, with ex-Lullabyer Mike Mogis as house producer. In sticking with them, despite drooling interest from the majors, he is one of the first current artists to deliberately turn his back on music’s new mega-corporate monster. Instead, he’s building a career of old-fashioned substance, releasing records at a steady pace, developing his art and audience in a way Columbia in 1962 might understand, but Sony-BMG in 2004 never could.
Comparisons to Dylan, meanwhile, are most apt in Oberst’s casual stretching of songs past their normal limits, often nearing 10 minutes without losing momentum. The last Bright Eyes LP, Lifted, or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002), also seemed to tilt at Dylanesque greatness. Its twin follow-ups sometimes touch it. Unlike, say, Lambchop’s double album in disguise from last year, these are genuinely separate records, more in the cavalier spirit of hip hoppers, like OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning is the more immediate of the two, built on a classic country template, and frequently dropping to an intimate hush, where Oberst’s voice, and the harmonies of guest Emmylou Harris, wait to lure you in. Strikingly, he’s singing lyrics that realise an intention he first announced three years ago (and developed in his punk side-project Desaparecidos’ 2002 LP Read Music/Speak Spanish) to go beyond confessional hand-wringing and wrestle with the wider world. This is an utterly engaged political album, with a backdrop of street demos and televised warfare. But the trap of literal hectoring that frequently hobbles protest singing is deftly avoided, as Oberst integrates mass feelings of outrage with the reality of our more atomised, self-obsessed daily lives. “Land Locked Blues” is typical, making current events and sex speak the same language, as the sound of a living-room tumble can’t drown out tanks on TV. “Well, a woman will pick you apart,” is its most cruelly violent phrase; Oberst’s agonising over his fame also selfishly intrudes on its martial beat. It’s a human, messy slide from political to personal, not a tight-arsed manifesto.
Though there’s a general air of thunder approaching, there is also room for “Lua”‘s wine-and-love-fuelled wildness, its shameless romantic adoration and allusions to larger, more mysterious stories. As impressive as anything, though, is the way the album’s trad-country soundscape is broken up into som ething unique by Oberst’s unruliness. His voice is one factor, a pure instrument he shoves into yowling pain and quivering self-pity. Rather than hide the art of this, his sobbed “me-e-hee” in “First Day Of My Life” is part of a general self-consciousness that might leave some listeners cold. But the charismatic flow of his singing allows Mogis’ delicate production to ebb and surge, sounds accruing and reducing like breathing. Where Ryan Adams replicates old records, this is something new.
Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, by comparison, sounds more impenetrable at first, as doomy ’80s synths are overloaded into crackling imperfection (helped along by guest guitars from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner). But, if anything, it contains a deeper melancholy, one that war and love are only symptoms of. “Down In A Rabbit Hole” is especially haunted, warning that “you’re farther gone than you might expect”, a death sentence delivered over caged animal roars. This was perhaps inspired by Oberst’s 2000 heart-scare after alcoholically ODing. That fits with other moments of deep alcoholic alienation, vomiting toilet-bowl self-disgust, and the nuclear dread he has harboured since childhood. But something more shadowy and metaphysical is at work elsewhere, as Oberst the ex-Jesuit dreams of digital reincarnation, dead friends piled like leaves, and corpses stepping free of crime-scene chalk. The underlying impression – crazed projection or not – is of the whole world ticking fast towards the apocalypse, with regeneration, perhaps, to follow. Yet the songs are neither dogmatic nor whacked out. Like fine pop writers before him, Oberst’s simply wrestling with something troubling he feels thick in the air.
He may not yet be plugged deep enough into his subconscious for irrefutable greatness. But after this remarkable, musically and lyrically disparate double-header – carried off with such organic confidence you hardly notice the achievement – greatness is in his grasp.
By Nick Hasted