With the release of 2002's lavishly produced opus Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes, reaped a flood of critical kudos and a sales breakthrough that led some to dub him the golden boy of the indie legions. He rode the momentum with last year's melodious One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels (an EP shared with fellow indie aspirants Neva Dinova), some high-profile TV appearances, and a featured spot on the Vote For Change tour with Bruce Springsteen and REM. Yet even as the masses began nuzzling up to him, Oberst the artist remains elusive at best. If it seems like he's opting for accessibility by jump-starting 2005 with the simultaneous release of two new albums, his unlikely observations and self-deprecating commentary stifle any attempt at an easy embrace.
In theory, these two efforts take a separate stance. I'm Awake, It's Morning is a folksy, mostly acoustic affair, while Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is dark, jittery, and underscored by a kinetic pulse. They're bound together by certain trademark similarities. The mood is bleak, seemingly on the edge of despair, and a tension that's palpable in the unsettling ambiance and fragile vocals haunts the music and lyrics, which appear preoccupied with fatalism and heartbreak.
Of the two, I'm Awake, It's Morning is the better effort, thanks in part to the presence of Emmylou Harris, whose soothing back-up vocals grace three of its songs. Still, it's not simply the guest stars who bear notice (Jim James from My Morning Jacket, another of last year's buzz bands, also appears). The yearning, bittersweet strains of "Old Soul Song," "Lua," "First Day of My Life," and "Poison Oak" bring to mind the distant strains of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and suggest that Oberst has finally found a way to channel his angst and uncertainty into songs that have a universal appeal. When he warbles with naked fragility, "Don't be fooled, love was always cruel" on "Train Under Water," it reminds anyone who has ever loved and lost that relationships are often the most difficult of human endeavors.
Despite the relative simplicity and accessibility of his arrangements -- mainly acoustic guitars and keyboards with hints of trumpet, mandolin, and pedal steel guitar -- Oberst's intentions can be deceiving. "At the Bottom of Everything" is an unlikely album opener, a quirky commentary that recalls Lifted's "The Big Picture" in that it begins with a rambling spoken-word narrative and then descends toward a chaotic conclusion. The songs starts with him describing, almost off-handedly, a woman's airplane journey and a sudden mechanical mishap that sends the plane spiraling, before ending up with a fellow passenger turning their free fall into a celebratory sing-along. It's weird to say the least. "Road to Joy," the closing cut, adds to the irony. "I've got my drugs, I've got my woman," he beams in a rare, if somewhat ironic, confession of satisfaction.
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These off-kilter commentaries are part of Oberst's charm, and I'm Awake, It's Morning has just the right combination of mayhem and whimsicality to succeed. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, however, is more challenging, and takes several concentrated listens to really sink in. On songs such as "Down in a Rabbit Hole" and "Devil in the Details," the plodding, overly fastidious arrangements threaten to overwhelm the melodies, with too many Theremin, tympanis, Wurlitzers, strings, and samples swirling about when a basic guitar, keyboard, and percussion arrangement might have sufficed. As members of Rilo Kiley, The Faint, Neva Dinova, The Postal Service, Azure Ray, and a host of others show up to lend a hand, it appears that Oberst may have lost command of the proceedings.
Oberst repeatedly admits to feeling emotionally conflicted, and armchair psychologists looking for insights into his personality will eagerly obsess over titles such as "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," or a verse such as "I just get myself so blue ... when there are choices I could make" (from "I Believe in Symmetry"). However, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn's best songs are those where his twisted humor peeks through. "I wish I had a parachute because I'm falling bad for you," he confesses on "Theme from Piñata," which, with its lilting flute solo, proves the album's most appealing offering.
Considering the collision of sounds and sentiments, culling the best songs from these two good albums could have produced one immediate masterpiece. Some may find Oberst's quirky ruminations somewhat befuddling, given his penchant for fuzzy metaphors and leaps from angst to optimism and back again. Still, there are joys and challenges to be found in probing the deeper textures of his music, revelations yielded by repeated listens, and it's that process of discovery that intensifies Bright Eyes' glow.