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Bright Eyes for a brave new world

Bright EyesI’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning Saddle Creek Records

4 and a half out of 5 stars

The stripped-down, acoustic I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is arguably the best Bright Eyes record to date.

With skill, poise and artful tact, I’m Wide Awake signals a musical rebirth for Oberst-a renaissance of skill and direction that places the young singer/songwriter safely in the company of genuine folk greatness.

I’m Wide Awake is a divergence of sorts for Bright Eyes, concerning itself less with piteous relationships and inner-turmoil than with greater, more relatable musings on the nature of love found, lost and remembered in a world gone mad.

Gone are the senses of self-pity and self-loathing that characterized so many Bright Eyes records to this point (and turned so many off to Bright Eyes’ brilliance). In their stead are renovations in spiritual hope and wonder. I’m Wide Awake displays a general belief that despite the fact, as Dylan put it, people are crazy and times are strange, there are still breathtaking moments of ecstasy and joy to be found in a mixed-up world.

This theme of rebirth in the face of overwhelming darkness, both musically and spiritually, is best traced to the uplifting track, “The First Day of my Life.”

On the cut, Oberst sings, “This is the first day of my life/ I swear I was born right in the doorway/ I went out in the rain/ Suddenly everything changed.”

It is this idea of turning the corner after a long and rain-soaked life, of walking through the doorway separating the dreary cold outside from the warmth inside-and being reborn in the process-that sets I’m Wide Awake apart from other Bright Eyes efforts. This is not a meditation on the dismal nature of existence as we know it, but rather a focused and direct celebration of life’s stunning surprises.

However, that is not to say that the negativity in our modern age gets off without any scrutiny.

On “Land Locked Blues,” Oberst recounts making love on the living room floor “With the noise in the background from a televised war.” But, while quick to point out the paradoxical joy of such an act, Oberst is still sure to bitingly remind listeners that “Greed is a bottomless pit/ And our freedom’s a joke/ We’re just taking a piss.”

Still, stalwart Bright Eyes fans need not despair-yes, Oberst does progress on I’m Wide Awake, but not so much that his beloved Bright Eyes is unrecognizable from its previous incarnations.

Oberst still sings like he’s always about to cry, even when he’s happy, and his cracked-voice squalor still makes the occasional appearances. Oberst even out-and-out acknowledges the fact that his voice is a turn-off for some on the album-closer, “Road to Joy,” when he sings, “Well I could have been a famous singer if I had someone else’s voice/ But failures always sounded sweeter/ Let’s f*** it up boys/ Make some noise!”

Failures, eh? Sorry Bright Eyes, not this time.

Eryn GreenA&E Editor

Bright EyesDigital Ash for a Digital UrnSaddle Creek Records

3 and a half out of 5 stars

Bright Eyes’ second new album, Digital Ash for a Digital Urn, shows a markedly different, more conceptual Connor Oberst than the stripped-down troubadour responsible for I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The album is an effective mortal and fatalistic foil to the optimism and hope typified by the former Oberst folk-rock opus.

On Digital Ash, Oberst layers his music with sparse celestial soundscapes, leaving behind the naked acoustic charm of I’m Wide Awake, and venturing into electronic distortion territory more familiar to long-standing Bright Eyes fans.

Simple guitar lines are replaced by digital blips and blurbs. Subdued vocals and straightforward lyrics are succeeded by convoluted filters and mixed-up Bright Eyes metaphors-in short, Digital Ash is the death rattle for the life celebrated by I’m Wide Awake. Instead of reveling in the hope and splendor of rebirth, on Digital Ash, Oberst ponders the vague possibility of an afterlife, or lack thereof, implied by existence.

The album’s tone is fitting for its subject matter. Digital Ash is not impersonal, but it is definitely less human than I’m Wide Awake. Emotion is conveyed via mechanical instrumentation, with Oberst’s vocals taking on a detached and aloof dimension, leaving the album with an overall cold, isolated air.

Tracks like “Gold Mine Gutted” use carefully-selected imagery to create a feeling of existential separation and decay with verses like “It was Don DeLillo, whiskey and a blinking midnight clock/ Speakers on the TV stand/ Just a turntable to watch/ When the smoke came out our mouths on all those hooded sweatshirt walks/ We were a stroke of luck/ We were a gold mine/ They gutted us.”

No longer does Oberst merely allude to the drugs and depression that plagued his life, but rather identifies their presence numerous times on Digital Ash.

On the same track, Oberst leaves little room for misunderstanding as he chronicles a relationship destroyed by addiction and abuse: “And all those white lines that sped us up/ We hurried to our death/ Well I lagged behind/ So you got ahead.”

However, while the songs that populate the sparse territory of Digital Ash may be dark, that doesn’t mean they’re not immensely listenable.Tracks like “Take it Easy (Love Nothing)” and “I Believe in Symmetry” take their detachment and use it to engage listeners. Thanks to superb production courtesy of Oberst and long-time Saddle Creek cohort Mike Mogus, the tracks maintain a shiny veneer, full of catchy digital beats and impeccable inner-song transitions.

The only places Digital Ash falters is on tracks like the experimental album-opener “Time Code” and the radio-friendly “Arc of Time (Time Code),” where Oberst resigns himself to avoid substantial lyrical content in favor of focusing on pretty aural artifice.

It’s a problem that the entire album faces, and though Digital Ash is largely able to overcome its human deficiencies, the reason Digital Ash is ultimately less effective than its folk-rock counterpart is that, sometimes, less glitz and more substance really do amount to more.

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