Turn Around, Bright Eyes

Indie icon Conor Oberst grows up -- and blows up

The music of both albums is also slicker than on previous efforts. That doesn't mean Oberst has hired a high-priced producer to put a glossy sheen on the proceedings, or that there are a ton of studio session players laying down licks. Emmylou Harris and My Morning Jacket's Jim James do show up for harmony vocals on Wide Awake, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner drizzles guitar and organ throughout Digital Ash, but their additions are rough and rugged. For her part, Harris delivers her lines with the same kind of ragged, meandering tone that she used on Dylan's 1974 opus, Desire (an album that appears to have served as a blueprint for Awake's upbeat folk-rock numbers). More than anything, the music is clearer and cleaner, all the better to accentuate the lyrics, rather than distract from them.

And what lyrics the pixie songwriter has come up with. Oberst has always written songs based on what he was experiencing at that moment, working through whatever issues were confronting him. So as Liftedwas devoted to mulching over his celebrity, Wide Awakeis a reaction to the ensuing rock star insularity, and a broad accounting of the post-9/11 Mr. Bush Goes to Washington world.

Political protest songs are difficult to write without sounding overly righteous or simplistic. But on Wide Awake, Oberst succeeds in being both angry and sympathetic, mainly because he intertwines current events with regular people. On "Road to Joy," he imagines the thoughts of a soldier being sent overseas: "When you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing/ It's best to join the side that's gonna win/ And no one's sure how all of this got started/ But we're gonna make them goddamn certain how it's gonna end." On the stunning "Land Locked Blues," he imbues sex with sociopolitics, depicting a couple screwing on the floor while a nearby TV plays footage from the Iraq War: "In that deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say, 'If we walk away, they walk away.'"

Boy in Da Corner: Conor Oberst.
Boy in Da Corner: Conor Oberst.

On Digital Ash, Oberst's writing is far more typical of his past work, his lines fragmented and nonlinear. This style -- less storytelling and more word-spilling -- isn't as eye-wideningly amazing as the revelations of Wide Awake. Still, there are good couplets (see "I hear if you make friends with Jesus Christ/ You'll get right up from that chalk outline" from "Arc of Time"), and the musical mash-up of acoustic emo and electronic beats is less bandwagony and more organic than you'd expect. The first single, "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," which features programming by the Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello, went to No. 2 on Billboard's singles chart, right behind Oberst's "Lua" (a one-two punch that hadn't been accomplished since 1997, by no less than Puff Daddy). Oberst has said that he wanted to craft songs for Digital that would be appreciated initially for their rhythms rather than his words, and tunes like "Take," "Hit the Switch," and "Easy/Lucky/ Free" accomplish this goal. Such objectives are another sign of Oberst's maturation as a musician. Now he's willing to let his own voice be secondary to his songs -- or at least to allow his lyrics to bubble up through the techno goo, rather than force his voice upon the listener.

At this point in time, Oberst may not be a modern musical messiah, but he's getting a lot closer. Hopefully, he'll continue to cast his gaze outward, telling the thorny tales of the hopeless and the outcast, looking to pinpoint just how the ordinary Joes get screwed (both literally and figuratively). And maybe he'll leave that strangled emo warble behind as well -- that's kids' stuff, and Bright Eyes is all grown up.

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