Faced with the prospect of following up 2002's grandiose, genre-bending Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Oberst decided to split his sound. One project focused on his particular brand of country-fried Americana while the other concentrated on fuzzed-out electronic pop. The two albums were respectively titled I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and Oberst joined the ranks of Axl Rose and his ilk by releasing both albums on the same day in late January. Unfortunately, the ambition and scope of Oberst's latest output is tarnished by one major complication: His songwriting has suffered in the aftermath of his newfound "maturity."
That is not to say, however, that the records are completely devoid of merit. Im Wide Awake, Its Morning the folk disc begins on a promising note. A stammering Oberst spits out a brief, rambling tale of love, falling planes and birthday parties before launching into the light-hearted acoustic jaunt of At the Bottom Of Everything. Following that unusually melodic excursion, Oberst again surprises us with a gorgeous country ballad, We Are Nowhere and Its Now. Featuring a stunning guest vocal by the esteemed Emmylou Harris, Oberst utilizes a slow, simple chord progression and stark imagery to create a vibrant snapshot of longing, love and yellow birds.
Old Soul Song (New World Order), meanwhile, manages to be politically incendiary and tasteful at the same time. The anger, alienation and frustration of classic Bright Eyes is wedded to a restrained, thoughtful arrangement that builds to a thundering climax a classic protest song updated for the 21st century.
It is following this cathartic declaration of purpose, however, that Im Wide Awake, Its Morning begins to lose steam. Part of Obersts appeal has always been his pretentiousness. 2002s Lifted was replete with lush instrumentation, ostentatious posturing and cheap gimmickry (for example, the track False Advertisement devolves into chaos after Oberst yelps mistake!). But somehow, it worked. A young man, armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and hubris, managed to create an album that perfectly captured the melodramatic highs and lows of adolescence. Parts of Lifted were dense and overbearing, but the sheer energy and audacity of this Nebraskan upstart carried the record from start to finish.
With the narrow singer/songwriter focus of Im Wide Awake, Oberst has stripped his music bare. The dynamic aspect of his best work is sorely missed. His reedy tenor and spare melodies are pushed to the forefront of each song, and by the end of the record the listener is painfully aware of Obersts generally forgivable shortcomings. Lua, First Day of My Life and Poison Oak all bore, while Train Under Water and Landlocked Blues fare only marginally better. The amusing kitsch of album closer Road to Joy a sly take on Beethovens Ode to Joy fails to redeem what largely amounts to an album of half-fulfilled expectations.
While Im Wide Awake, Its Morning proves to be a mixed bag of sorts, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is nothing less than a dazzling disappointment. Oberst has long professed a desire to create an album based around rhythm and groove. Following the near-success of 2002s Lover I Dont Have to Love a stunning number which showcased a sexier, darker Bright Eyes many fans eagerly anticipated an albums worth of slinky drums and booming bass. To achieve this end, Oberst enlisted the help of longtime collaborator and producer Mike Mogis, the closest thing Oberst has to a regular band mate. Unfortunately, Mogis seems ill-equipped to perform the task of producing interesting soundscapes. Most of the record ends up sounding like a cheap, derivative imitation of the glut of electro-pop bands littering the indie scene. Unsurprisingly, the sole standout moment comes when Jimmy Tamborello (of Postal Service fame) manages to infuse some melody into Take It Easy (Love Nothing), a buoyant pop song coated in pulsing fuzz guitar and Casio keyboards. The rest of the record is largely disposable; even Obersts vocals and lyrics lack their usual fire.
The attention thrust upon Oberst will not cease for some time. This is understandable. Oberst happens to suffer from what can only be described as an admirable malady: Hes a rare breed of artist overwhelmed with ideas and ambition. However, despite his prolific talent, Oberst has yet to record a cohesive artistic statement. For years, critics and fans alike have spoken of Obersts vast potential. But after five albums and numerous EPs, one must begin to wonder when, if ever, Oberst will transition from a songwriter with potential to something greater: a songwriter with purpose.