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Bright Eyes
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning/Digital Ash In A Digital Urn
(Saddle Creek)

Sometimes you can be too darn talented for your own good. Regularly described as a “boy genius”, 24 year old Conor Oberst - doe-eyed self-obsessive, thrift store beautiful, once rumoured to be the consort of Winona Ryder, probably because the concept was too perfectly narcissistic for the tattle-mongers to resist – has had a chequered career to date. At best, his self-regarding romanticism, tortured poetry delivered with the panache of a master sweet talker, has been compelling and exhilarating. But when he’s stumbled, it’s all seemed a little false, empty, like he’s playing a part and playing us for a fool, toying with heartbreak and depression because he’s talented enough to do so.

Here, he attempts to resolve the situation by doing what he does best: too much. Always one to shove reams of embattled lyricism into his songs when a little subtle drama and restraint might have been more worthwhile, he capitalises on his success in the Billboard Chart (top two placings last November), by releasing two albums at once. One is the record that Bright Eyes fans have been praying for – carefully played, quietly honest, dripping with glorious poetry and painful insight, truly the work of utter genius. And the other’s terrible. Well, the other’s cold and awkward and mistimed and misplayed, a mere mediocre six out of ten, anyband, anytime, cutting room floor.

So let’s concentrate on the former. ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ is mostly an acoustic record, easy strums and gentle brushed drums, with flourishes of late night country adding some glorious last-waltz emotion and Emmylou Harris offering deep-voiced sympathy on back up. While previously Oberst’s talent has often got in the way, here it’s perfectly in focus – he’s stopped trying to be clever clever and has finally found a way to just open up. You could pick a couplet at random and it would be worth lauding – “I know you have a heavy heart/I can feel it when we kiss”; “I’d rather be working for a paycheck/Than waiting in to win the lottery”; “If you hate the taste of wine/Why do you drink it til you’re blind?”; “What is simple in the moonlight/In the morning never is”.

A personal shift seems to be behind this record. On the opening, ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’, Oberst sings “I’m happy because I’ve found out I am really no one” – and the sense of letting go, of coming to terms with life, permeates this album, from ‘We Are Nowhere And It’s Now’ to ‘First Day Of My Life’ and onwards. Reading between the lines, it seems like he’s finally fallen happily in love – “This time it’s different,” he sings, “I really think you like me.” Or maybe he’s just learnt to accept a host of shortcomings – some of the more affecting moments on the album are when he’s being the sober confidant, looking after a friend or a lover, forgiving them everything.

Album two, ‘Digital Ash In A Digital Urn’, probably suffers from being a collection of left overs. There’s certainly nothing as startling, lyrically or emotionally, included here. And the backing – somewhere between The Postal Service, Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel – doesn’t help much either, obscuring Oberst with loud, clunking beats and ho-hum electronica. There are moments (‘Ship In A Bottle’ manages some swaying trumpet-bolstered melodrama and ‘Down In A Rabbit Hole’ has some nice rising strings), but mostly this feels irrelevant, unnecessary.

Why does it exist? Well, maybe it makes Oberst feel better about finally realising his talent, and some might say destiny, by throwing it all away immediately afterwards. Which, in the grand scheme of things, is a small price to pay – and certainly far preferable to taking a shotgun into the garage. One of these records will be remembered in twenty years time. No prizes for guessing which.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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