Album: Bright Eyes

4.00

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning/ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, SADDLE CREEK

The double album has made something of a comeback in the past year or so, albeit in the form of two separate albums. Joining recent offerings from OutKast, Lambchop and Nick Cave comes this latest pair of records from the prolific pen of Conor Oberst, the guiding force behind the Nebraskan combo Bright Eyes.

The double album has made something of a comeback in the past year or so, albeit in the form of two separate albums. Joining recent offerings from OutKast, Lambchop and Nick Cave comes this latest pair of records from the prolific pen of Conor Oberst, the guiding force behind the Nebraskan combo Bright Eyes.

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is a folk- or country-rock affair, while Digital Ash in a Digital Urn adopts a broader palette, taking in the synth lines of 1980s electropop. Nevertheless, the two albums are linked by a shared thematic interest in romance and the mercy of mortality. "If your thoughts should turn to death," Oberst sings on the latter's "Down In A Rabbit Hole", "Just stomp 'em out like a cigarette". He avoids his own advice right from the start of I'm Wide Awake, in which passengers on a plane plummeting into the sea sing a fast-strummed number about destiny called "At the Bottom of Everything". Elsewhere, rubber-necking onlookers gawp at a tragic accident in "Old Soul Song", a faltering relationship is unflinchingly anatomised in "Lua", and Oberst vents his articulate spleen about American imperialism on the sardonic "Road to Joy" and "Landlocked Blues". "I could have been a famous singer/ If I had someone else's voice/ But failure's always sounded better/ Fuck it up, boys, make some noise!" he yells towards the end of the former, ushering in the wild avant-jazz horns that bring the album to a flustered close.

As it happens, Oberst doesn't need anyone else's voice: his lends itself well to the betrayed idealism that courses through his songs. It also manages to cope with the more convoluted of his band's backings, which, particularly on Digital Ash, veer wildly from track to track. The organ, keyboards and theremin of "Gold Mine Gutted" give way to the twinkling African-style guitars of "Arc of Time", and these in turn to the scary, symphonic banked keyboards, string-synths and guitars swaying through "Down In A Rabbit Hole".

Later on, a plaintive horn and a baby's sobbing add an emotional peculiarity to "Ship in a Bottle" that fits with the song's creepy romantic imagery: "I wanna be the surgeon that cuts you open/ Fixes all of life's mistakes/ I wanna be the house that you were raised in/ The only place that you feel safe". It's hard to think of another songwriter working today - save for, maybe, Elvis Costello or Bonnie Prince Billy - who would attempt such a tricky lyrical conceit. And even they might be hard-pushed to improve on the balance Oberst achieves between affection and obsession, reflected here in his fascination with death, memory and spiritual regeneration. Weighty matters, sure, but his scrawny frame has the strength to carry them off.

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