Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning/ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Oberst carries on with a loping stride through track after track of near-naked fragility. Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning/ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek)

For some, Mr. Conor Oberst and his tobaggoning into the gut of an endless despair is a tough sell. It takes some real wanting to cram one of his records into the disc changer if there’s any sort of positive outlook to the day. If you press play, you’ll immediately be reminded of all the sadness in your life that was supposed to have been forgotten—washed away by a lengthy sleep or a bender and a shower. The little sorrows pop from behind your eyes, lean out from the darkest corners of memory, playing peek-a-boo and fluttering like fireflies, so you have no choice but to pay attention to them once more. They get caught up in glass jars and are kept alive with nail holes in lids and repeated listens. His is a land where hopefulness is a precious metal found in trace amounts, and that’s only after a lot of toilsome digging. But it is there. It lies cheek-to-cheek with the raw emotions of love and loss, often camouflaged to resemble a tethered bird. True hope has no restrictions, but the kind Oberst sings about always does. It’s never easy or clean, and it’s sick how pretty it is.

Whether you’ve bought into his power—he’s a genius, we’ve heard—or kept a safe distance and distaste for his quivering vocals and overt politics, the simultaneous release of his latest two LPs does much to push you in the direction of the former. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn are billed as different breeds of Bright Eyes—one the dusty collie and the other the rowdy boxer. That may be accurate to a point, but all cataloging don’t change what the songs evoke or how they exist.

Oberst is unquestionably more of a folkie on Wide Awake, starting the disc with a spoken monologue that’s oddly like Jason Lee’s airplane story from Mallrats, before swooping into “We Are Nowhere and That’s Now,” a gentle song of love sought and unreached, featuring the hypnotic guest vocals of Emmylou Harris. Oberst carries on with a loping stride through track after track of near-naked fragility. There are still the times when he loses his yolk, his blood boils, and he curdles out a wail that could haunt, piercing it right through the center of a song, pulling us into the coals with him. His way with the unexpected fit of lyric to universal feeling is less abstract than it’s been on past releases, giving his words about God and his Siddhartha-ish quest for self-knowledge the brunt force of a bulldozer. The songwriting is so strong on each of these 22 new songs that the fate that normally befalls a double-disc album or two quickly turned albums—a record’s worth of weak throw-away songs that might not have the ability to swim as b-sides—can’t even be considered.

He’s built two records that could catch whistles from cold hearts. The musicianship is full and determined, swelling at timely instances like tear ducts. “Devil in the Details,” with its rich piano and harp lines interplaying, and “Take It Easy (Love Nothing),” with its lucid and evocative lure of simple melodic bliss, can help to determine that the great songwriters are born into it. Hard work and diligent practice would leave most miles short of anything Oberst is capable of. Do believe in him. Believe that he’s peerless and that with these two records, he’s outdone himself all over again.

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