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)
Hatchie – Keepsake
Keepsake, the debut album by Brisbane dream pop artist Hatchie is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars
Brisbane indie-pop artist Hatchie (known to her friends and family as Harriette Pilbeam) is in the envious position of being a pop artist unspoiled by the many trappings of what it is to be a modern pop artist. Unlike some of her contemporaries who craft music by committee or with Sheeran-like self-importance, Hatchie is as of now, unsullied by the pressures of the cookie-cutter pop machine. Hatchie’s debut full length is a showcase for a talent who is supremely confident and composed in her abilities, and Keepsake is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars. The album is also a wonderful throwback to pop’s dreamy 60s influences that shuffle in and out of this delirium while working alongside distinctly more current musical touches.
There is the lush dream pop sounds of “Without a Blush”, taking cues from the best of what Stars and Goldfrapp conjure but heaping a tonne of Pilbeam’s charisma on it. Like her vocals, “Without a Blush” has this elegance that has the ability to elevate songs from being beautiful to grand. It is the kind of vocal elegance that really shines through on songs like the skittering, beat-driven “Obsessed” and the alternative, guitar-fuelled (yay!) “When I Get Out”. Indie/electronic closer “Keep” is a wonderful end to proceedings.
However, the great strength of Keepsake is not just its composure in how all the songs have been put together. It is also this genuine, natural-sounding quality that permeates the album- nothing overly written, overly produced or put together by research groups or music analysts. It just sounds like talent. We can argue that much of pop music is constructed to appease the moment- designed to grab as much attention as possible in an A.D.D. world. And sure, that can be said about almost any kind of music, but the resulting aural tone of Keepsake is anything but transient or transparent.
The best way to combat tepid chart-topping music is to write better pop songs. Songs like “Her Own Heart” and the disco-toned “Stay” are examples of pop music that come across as timeless. We are moved by the songs found on Keepsake when we listen to them today. And I suspect that in 10 years time, or in 20, we will most likely feel the same. It is rare to find the sort of ageless beauty you find on Keepsake.