January 25, 2005

Morning of a new era: Oberst awakens new classic

Conor Oberst is a victim. My perception of this is probably colored by the fact that he's spent the last 10 years or so articulating his victimization at the hands of the world onstage as Bright Eyes. But that's not what I'm talking about. Rather, Oberst is the victim of an overactive, hype-driven rock press. While his increasingly skillful songwriting has always shown tremendous promise, comparisons to the likes of Dylan and Gram Parsons came before he even had the chops to back them up. The ensuing backlash has caused Bright Eyes to fall out of favor with many in the cred-conscious indie rock world.

The upside to this is that Bright Eyes has probably outgrown that audience anyway. In all likelihood, this will be the breakthrough album that fans and industry types alike have been expecting for a few years now. This is, of course, partially because the press has willed it to be so but also because it's just that good. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning isn't just the best Bright Eyes album to date, it's an absolute masterpiece.

There have always been a few things holding Oberst back from making a record like this, chief among them being his disparate musical interests. While alternating between folk-rock and electronic pop makes for an interesting record, it has always made him seem a little unfocused. By simultaneously releasing two records (see Digital Ash in a Digital Urn), Oberst has finally been able to realize two separate, musically cohesive statements.

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is a masterwork of modern folk music through and through: focused, concise (it clocks in at a modest 45 minutes), and consistent. There are no weak spots to be found. In fact, every song showcases Oberst as the master songwriter that he's long been expected to develop into. Lyrically, it finds him expanding his oeuvre as well, weaving together his usual personal travails (which have become far more varied in tone) with wholly fictional edifices and political commentary. In fact, all those Bob Dylan comparisons are finally starting to make sense. In every way, I'm Wide Awake finds Oberst stepping outside of his usual role of victim.

The record opens with a story that contains a song that eventually manages to wrest itself free from the confines of the narrative. This may sound offensively metaphysical on paper, but it should only take one listen to "At the Bottom of Everything" to dispel any such criticism. A simple, catchy folk number consisting of guitar and mandolin, the song hits its stride during the chorus, in which Oberst and My Morning Jacket's Jim James harmonize beautifully, singing lines like "Death will give us back to God/Just like the setting sun/Is returned to the lonesome ocean."

The next track, "We Are Nowhere and it's Now," is one of the album's highlights. Featuring the legendary Emmylou Harris on backup vocals and Norah Jones's guitarist and collaborator Jesse Harris on guitar, the song is essentially a down tempo tromp through town with Oberst as he fails to find meaning in his life. Somehow, Emmylou's strong, clear voice is exactly what's needed to temper Oberst's unsteady warble as they sing, "And like a 10-minute dream in the passenger seat while the world was flying by/I haven't been gone very long but it feels like a lifetime."

The album's lead single, "Lua," sounds the most like previous Bright Eyes material. The song finds Oberst relating yet another failed romance over a fragile acoustic guitar line. The only difference is that this time around, he finds himself as accountable as his lover: "But me, I'm not a gamble/You can count on me to split/The love I sell you in the evening by the morning won't exist."

Ostensibly, one of the reasons that I'm Wide Awake turned out as well as it did is because of the large amount of road-testing that most of the songs received. Oberst has been playing over half of the record live for well over a year, and the songs have certainly benefited from this process. One such song is "Train Under Water," a country boy's ode to New York City. While previous versions favored a somewhat denser sound, here the song is given ample room to breathe, highlighting Oberst's continued search for the ineffable: "Now I'm riding all over this island/Looking for something to open my eyes."

Next is the longtime fan favorite, "First Day of My Life," Bright Eyes' first bona fide love song. Unlike previous versions, the song is ornamented here by Jesse Harris's ornate finger picking as well as a weighty upright bass line. Oberst's lyrics aptly capture the naïve uncertainty of young love: "So if you want to be with me/With these things there's no telling/We'll just have to wait and see/But I'd rather be working for a paycheck/Than waiting to win the lottery."

"Landlocked Blues" (previously known as "One Foot in Front of the Other") also makes an appearance during the record's second half, albeit as a definitive reading. When Emmylou and Oberst harmonize on the lines "I dreamt you were carried away on the crest of a wave/Baby don't go away, come here," it's enough to send chills down one's spine. The song also conveys a strong sense of timeliness with lines like "We made love on the living room floor/With the noise in the background of a televised war/And in that deafening pleasure, I thought I heard someone say/If we walk away, they'll walk away."

The album closes with "Road to Joy," a reworking of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth symphony (better known as "Ode to Joy"), and a staple closing number on the last few tours. Whereas most of the songs on the album have a decidedly muted feel, "Road to Joy" slowly builds towards a bombastically cathartic peak (as Bright Eyes closing numbers tend to do). Whereas the album opens with the image of the world waking up to the reality of life ("Oh my morning's coming back/The whole world's waking up"), our protagonist's salvation doesn't come until the album's closing line, when he screams, "I'm wide awake/It's morning!" amidst a swell of noise.

Regardless of what critical reception I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning will receive, the album has serious potential to expose Bright Eyes to a much wider audience. Gone are the experimental flourishes and extended running times that may have previously put off casual listeners. All that's left are the songs, not only the best of Oberst's career but good enough to establish him as an important voice in American music. Not bad for a 24 year-old kid from Nebraska. I'll bet that old Bob Dylan never got a mention on The O.C.