Here is a theory: For some people, the only success is failure. Conor Oberst is surely one of these people. Nearly all of the best songs by Bright Eyes, the Oberst fronted collaborative project, deal with failure, specifically the failure of relationships, failure of our government, and, most notably, the failure of his own art. The band’s Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, was their swansong, with perhaps more angst and stripped down emotion than any of their previous releases. The album dealt with pain of all kinds such as the pain of creating art (Oberst’s realization that “everything I have made is trite and cheap and a waste of paint, of tape, of time” in “Waste of Paint”), the pain of love (“love is an excuse to get hurt” in “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”), not to mention the pain of religion and politics. The only departure from the spiral of misery on Lifted… was in the positively upbeat “Bowl of Oranges.” This track was so intriguing because it was so oddly upbeat and instrumentally simply; Oberst sung of helping the sick and the paralyzing beauty of the world, and left many a listener wondering what provoked this foreign sentiment. Was it sarcasm? Was it a harbinger of things to come? While the track provoked discussion, it also became an extremely successful college radio single and got the band invited to perform on Conan O’Brien. This was not the failure and obscurity Conor was used to, and, after basing nearly his entire career around failure, fans wondered what direction Bright Eyes would continue in.
At the beginning of this month, the world received an answer in two separate discs, released simultaneously; the techno-rock Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and the disc reviewed here, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. From the title of the disc alone, one could tell that things were slightly sunnier in the Bright Eyes camp, and, lest to say, this is not the album anyone expected Conor Oberst to produce. The defining characteristics of any two given Bright Eyes songs prior to I’m Wide Awake… was that they were bound to be self-indulgent, but also most likely sound nothing like each other. The songs on Lifted, for example, moved from gothic orchestral rock to acoustic soul bearing to country with ease. I’m Wide Awake, on the other hand, is almost entirely a country album.
“At The Bottom of Everything” starts the album on a more traditional Bright Eyes note, with Oberst spending nearly two minutes telling the story of two people on a doomed plane crashing into the ocean, each trying to understand the proximity of their own demise. The song itself then begins and listeners get an acoustic, fiddle enhanced bitter, vitriolic lament that ends with Oberst finding happiness because “I found out I am really no one.” This realization by Oberst is a telling summary of the entire album. Oberst was one of a select few songwriters whose work was enhanced by the self-indulgent nature of his songs, and he boldly declares in this first track that he is nothing special, just an average guy. For the majority of the album, the listener is treated to poetic, sparse, downbeat country tracks, many of which feature beautiful backing vocals from Emmy Lou Harris, an amazing country artist in her own right. These songs are beautiful, poignant, and lyrically astute. Oberst even manages to tackle the political without sounding preachy in the slow waltz, “Landlocked Blues.” However, something just doesn’t feel right.
This brings up the paradox of the review, should this review recommend this album as an excellent and adventurous country album, or call this a creative retreat for Oberst and the least exciting release in the Bright Eyes catalog? Perhaps it is too much to expect from Oberst to release an album with the emotional pull of his earlier discs, but the distance by which he separates himself from the listener on this album is huge. Perhaps the best thing to be said about this release is that it really is quite good, and that it’s just unfair to have any expectations for Oberst to follow a linear path, as long as his releases are of as high a quality as I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is.
(Saddle Creek Records)