Someone famous whose name I honestly can’t remember said progress was a process that involved acknowledging the past before stepping into the future. It’s an obvious point when you think about it; how can someone learn from the mistakes of the past without first making them? And how to better celebrate its successes?
When it comes to personal progress, an artist with as much critical attention and unwavering output as Conor Oberst is in a no-win situation: to be consistent is to be deemed “static,” to experiment is to be deemed “inconsistent.” In this respect, the simultaneous release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is brilliant. Oberst does the past, Oberst does the future — and he does them both better than anyone else does the present.
The acoustic-heavy I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning begins as all oral tradition should: Oberst, sounding like an overzealous 10-year-old, tells a story to whoever’s listening. After his rambling finally breaks into song, Oberst sarcastically derides the phone systems and power struggles that run our lives, eventually suggesting, “We must stare into a crystal ball and only see the past.” A title like I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning should make it pretty clear that the music within bears an eye toward beginnings, but the lyrics back it up frequently enough.
Yes, Morning is an album by Oberst the Historian. In “Another Travelin’ Song,” he offers up the purpose of his craft: “I’m hunched over a typewriter/ I guess you’d call that painting in a cave.” When he sings on “Landlocked Blues” about balancing history textbooks on his head, he’s hardly exaggerating. There’s so much musical material that grounds this album in ambiguous familiarity — the riff of “Road to Joy” derived, albeit a bit cheesily, from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”; the somber reading of “Taps” in “Land Locked Blues”; Mike Mogis’s gentle folk instrumentation. This is without question the most accessible Bright Eyes release yet.
If only the same could be said for the more electronic-focused Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Though equal the album that Morning is, it couldn’t feel more distant. The experimental textures are vainly hit or miss: “Time Code” and “Down in a Rabbit Hole” meander pointlessly along through abrasive drums and moaning synths, but “Ship in a Bottle” and “Light Pollution” are simply perfect rock songs. Even the bubbly “Arc of Time” is a steel drum away from being the island jam of the year.
But despite the inconsistent and occasionally off-putting production, Digital Ash still matches the songwriting quality of its folk counterpart. Morning takes care of the historical, but this album hits on more futuristic themes. By the time the second song rolls around, Oberst is singing about doing coke and reading Don Delillo, kind of staging the album in the saturated White Noise world that becomes more prevalent all the time. Words about machines and data entry are abnormally frequent (for a Bright Eyes album, at least), and segments like horns and machines trying to imitate a baby’s cry on “Ship in a Bottle” give the album an ominous, almost Brave New World-like feel.
Both albums have their highs and lows, but together they make for what’s easily the best music Bright Eyes has released to date. Though the two-album sprawl seems a bit of a spectacle, the difference between the two is really just a polarization of Oberst’s already present themes. Both bear at least some resemblance to past efforts (two of the songs on Morning, “Land Locked Blues” and “Poison Oak,” actually originated on older EPs, and many of the songs are tour favorites), and both feature the usual party of guests (members of the Faint and Rilo Kiley, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Emmylou Harris). But I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn are still Oberst’s albums, and despite their radically different sounds, they feel equally sincere.