Some pop culture phenomena are unfathomable. Why the boys in Maroon 5, who have as much soul as a worn-out sandal, are hugely popular is beyond comprehension. Ashlee Simpson? She couldn't sing her way out of a paper bag. Jim Carrey is the least funny funny-man in history, Everybody Loves Raymond is the most ironically named sitcom ever, and the dude from Dashboard Confessional is Jackson Browne without the talent and the domestic abuse allegations. As for Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and his emo-indie mewling, just contemplating him makes the mind spasm like an epileptic watching a manga marathon.
But wait, aren't we all supposed to adore Omaha's finest indie love-muffin? After all, Oberst has been called a genius more times than Albert Einstein, has done more drugs than Drew Barrymore, and was handpicked by Bruce Springsteen to spread the gospel according to John (Kerry) during last year's Vote for Change Tour. He's stood steadfastly independent, refusing to submit to a multitude of major-label offers, releasing his records on the tiny Nebraskan Saddle Creek imprint instead (and being highly successful at it, moving an astonishing 200,000 copies of Bright Eyes' 2002 LP, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground). Last year, when starting his own offshoot label called Team Love, Oberst decided to make all of the label's tracks available online for free, which is as close to a complete repudiation of Big Music's business model as you're likely to see. At the same time, he stated that he would never, ever, ever play a venue owned by media behemoth Clear Channel — meaning that he'd willingly sacrifice great gobs of moola for the opportunity to sow the seeds of diversity.
OK, so the diminutive singer/songwriter is as earnest and liberal and goodly hearted as they come. He's also Midwestern emo cute, with floppy unwashed hair, a Twiggy-thin waist, and the kind of piercing gaze that wets many an underaged panty. But what about talent? Why did Winona Ryder give him an infamous goodbye smooch, why do message boards praise his every syllable, why will teenagers sell their little siblings for tickets to his shows? It must be the voice.
That awful, strangled-cat voice.
Let's say you've got a kid who gets beat up a lot in school. And he deserves to get manhandled because he's a sniveling, whiny smartass who believes he's a victim of circumstances and not his own sharp tongue. He would immediately approximate the kind of desperate, adenoidal, needs-a-punch-in-the-neck howl that Oberst has perfected over the past 11 years and seven albums (with Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, and his first group, Commander Venus). Some call Oberst's voice soulful, yearning, emoriffic; I think it goes down as easy as a bucket of nails. That whine of his makes it near impossible to listen to his lyrics, which occasionally are profound enough to be scrawled in high school yearbooks.
As for musical gifts, Oberst has never shown a lot of melodic talent. Sure, on occasion his tunes — recorded with a roulette wheel of players, anchored by producer Mike Mogis — have some of the freewheelin' drive of Bob Dylan's, the rust-bucket energy of the Meat Puppets', the y'allternative beauty of Uncle Tupelo's. But few of his songs sound distinctive enough to warrant the genius tag; they're instead the kind of sloppy indie rock that's often called “genuine.”
Presently, Oberst seems to think he's Guns N' Roses or something. This past month, he released two Bright Eyes albums, the trad-folkish I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the electro-rocking Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, simultaneously and separately. But here's the shocker: Finally the Omaha sprite has shown himself worthy of his press clippings. While Digital Ash is a bit of a mishmash, with a few great tunes that meld his earnest voice to computer thumpery, Wide Awake is just plain great all the way through, a modern folk miracle that's politically relevant, harrowingly personal, and nicely sung.
Perhaps the oddest detail about Wide Awake is that most of the songs were written after Oberst moved to New York City in 2003. Here is his quietest, most delicate album, and it was inspired by the loudest, grittiest city around, which is not to say that some of the grime didn't make its way into his tunes. On “Road to Joy,” a rollicking reworking of Beethoven's “Ode to Joy,” a homeless guy reads the body count of a war while using the paper as a blanket. On “Lua,” Oberst takes an uncompromising look at a dysfunctional relationship with a drug-addled gal pal, whispering, “We might die from medication/ But we sure kill all the pain/ What's normal in the evening/ By morning seems insane.”
The latter tune has more than a passing resemblance to the Replacements' quiet ballads. Oberst seems to have finally learned what Paul Westerberg always knew: that his louder numbers are that much more intense by juxtaposing them with intimate soft numbers. By using only the barest of acoustic strums as backing, he doesn't need to howl like a cat with a gigantic thorn in his paw. The 25-year-old here sings with far less trembling vibrato than on past efforts, as if he's finally confident enough to let his words carry the emotion of the songs. And the few moments when he does strain his vocal chords — as on the end of “First Day of My Life,” when he draws out, “I think you might really liiiiike meeeeee” — the gambit works better than before, simply because it's used less often. Old fans may rue his newfound serenity, as if somehow precision and beauty lack intensity, but now his high moments are much higher and his lows are that much lower.
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 Lifted was devoted to mulching over his celebrity, Wide Awake is 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.'”
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.