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ISSUE 118 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/25/2005

Oberst dishes up disappointments

By Peter Farrell
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 25, 2005

Finally, Conor Oberst has arrived. Over the course of the past 10 years, the heartland’s indie wunderkind has grown up, and we’ve grown up with him. The formerly indelible image of a prepubescent Oberst fronting his first band, Commander Venus — thin, frail and overwhelmed by the size of both his guitar and glasses — has faded from memory. Instead, “Oberst the Prodigy” has become “Oberst the Icon.” He’s both poet and sex symbol, the Prozac generation’s answer to Dylan and Springsteen. He has an adoring legion of polyester-clad devotees, the endorsements of established superstars like Michael Stipe and Eddie Vedder and in late September scored an almost unprecedented one-two debut on the Billboard singles chart. But what about the music?

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. I’m Wide Awake, It’s 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 It’s 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 I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning begins to lose steam. Part of Oberst’s appeal has always been his pretentiousness. 2002’s 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 I’m 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 Oberst’s 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 Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” — fails to redeem what largely amounts to an album of half-fulfilled expectations.

While I’m Wide Awake, It’s 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 2002’s “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” — a stunning number which showcased a sexier, darker Bright Eyes — many fans eagerly anticipated an album’s 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 Oberst’s 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: He’s 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 Oberst’s vast “potential.” But after five albums and numerous EP’s, one must begin to wonder when, if ever, Oberst will transition from a songwriter with “potential” to something greater: a songwriter with purpose.

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