January 25, 2005

Near self-parody, Oberst sprinkles Ash with too much tech, not enough soul

When musical posterity looks back upon today (if it does at all), it will surely remember the release of two Bright Eyes albums, one terrific, one merely good. The terrific one, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, will surely overshadow its evil twin, a dense, claustrophobic album seemingly produced by malevolent robots in some dank cave.

Since Bright Eyes mastermind Conor Oberst was given the opportunity to release two albums simultaneously, he chose to make one album of user-friendly songs, undoubtedly destined for popularity, all the while pooling his more risky material for Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. As always, some of the gambles pay off beautifully, while others don't return on the deposit.

As with previous Bright Eyes albums, the first track is not really a song; it's more of an introduction. Electronic winds blow for the first few minutes, intertwining with eerie keyboards. Massive synthesized drumbeats follow, sounding like the marching of some colossal futuristic army. What one notices immediately is that the programming is very organic, without the harsh digital feel that often comes with largely electronic instrumentation.

The album's first true song, "Gold Mine Gutted," is surprising, if only because it covers such well-worn territory. Those who have heard Bright Eyes' Letting Off the Happiness will feel right at home, as the instrumentation is very similar to "Touch" or "Pull My Hair." Lyrically, the song covers the same ground as I'm Wide Awake, namely Oberst's nostalgia for home after his move to New York, as well as his rising fame: "I left for dead/The sorrowful Midwest/Well I did my best/To keep my head."

The first real mistake comes with "Arc of Time (Time Code)." The beat is actually quite good, but the song just goes too far, even for someone who has made a career out of pushing boundaries. The lyrics border on self-impersonation with lines like "I hear if you make friends/With Jesus Christ/You'll get right up/From that chalk outline," and the song is just too poppy for its own good.

Another blunder is "Theme From Piñata." The song was originally performed as an acoustic number, grouped together with the material from I'm Wide Awake. The final version sounds as though the electronics were added as an afterthought, coming across as cheesy where the original sounded delicate.

But never fear—there are some great songs here as well. The first single, "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," is the most danceable Bright Eyes song to date, with a mix of electronic and live drumming and chiming keyboards, including programming by Jimmy Tamborello of Postal Service fame. This song also reprises the sentiment of Letting Off the Happiness, as Oberst laments the fact that, although lying should make him feel cheap, it makes him feel free.

The strongest song is the album closer, "Easy/Lucky/Free," which sums things up perfectly. The instrumentation is the best of the album, with subtle drums and distant steel guitar, as Oberst considers the nature of mourning: "But don't you weep (don't you weep for them)/There is nothing as lucky/Don't you weep/There is nothing as lucky, as easy, and free." Over these words, old Oberst flame Maria Taylor sings a heavenly, vocoderized background vocal. Instead of fading out as one would expect, the song decays into sonic jaggedness before finally sputtering out.

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn may have some faults, but those interested in Bright Eyes should check it out. There may be overproduction and bad samples (a baby crying, for instance) in some places, but I won't begrudge Conor Oberst a little risk if it leads to songs like "Easy/Lucky/Free." So if you only have $15, pick up I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. But if you have more, get Digital Ash too. It's at least better than that over-hyped Arcade Fire record.