BRIGHT EYES: DIGITAL ASH IN A DIGITAL URN (2005)
1) Time Code; 2) Gold Mine Gutted; 3) Arc Of Time (Time Code); 4) Down In A Rabbit Hole; 5) Take It Easy (Love Nothing); 6) Hit The Switch; 7) I Believe In Symmetry; 8) Devil In The Details; 9) Ship In A Bottle; 10) Light Pollution; 11) Theme From Piñata; 12) Easy/Lucky/Free.
Of the two studio albums released simultaneously, Digital Ash seems to have received more critical flack and a little less fan respect, mainly because the word Digital in the title immediately focuses our attention on Conor's extensive use of electronics. I mean — yeah, what the hell, this is Bright Eyes and their frosty «Omaha sound», where the heck do synthesizers and programmed beats belong in this? And if this guy does so much to become the «icon of sincerity» in modern indie music, how does that agree with processing your music through a computer?
But that's all theory, and on practice, once you get past the nearly-instrumental intro of ʽTime Codeʼ, the use of electronics on this album is neither particularly annoying nor detracting from the «essence» of Bright Eyes. One thing Oberst is never very much interested in is making music, and that accounts for his approach to the electronic business as well. The programmed beats will hardly make Richard D. James lose much sleep, and the atmosphere-producing synthesizers produce barely enough atmosphere for us to breathe it in, let alone any perspectives of intoxication.
Besides, most of the melodies remain in the usual neo-folk ballpark. No matter how many drum machine overlays there may be on ʽArc Of Timeʼ and how strongly the digital effects are pressed on its acoustic guitars, there is no force in the universe that could prevent me from wanting to finish off the lines "...and they twist like sheets, till you fall asleep, and they finally unwind" with "...as we gaze upon the chimes of freedom flashing". You know what I mean: you can take a horse to the water, but you cannot make him bend a circuit.
On the other hand, bringing in electronics helps Oberst at least modestly expand his means and make a record more consistently listenable and less consistently predictable than things used to be. ʽGold Mine Guttedʼ is almost a good song — at least it has a simple, melancholic keyboard hook upon which Oberst's latest confessional can be appropriately hung. ʽDown In A Rabbit Holeʼ creates a wall of sound from various electronics and an entire string quartet. ʽTake It Easyʼ has a very pretty coda that joins martial rhythms with kiddie-magic electronic chimes. And so on and on — we are basically back to the complexity level of Fevers And Mirrors, and some of the bits and pieces here may even be more memorable.
As for the «attitudes» of particular songs, my brain exercises the old golden rule: the more suffering there is in an Oberst song, the more suffering is inflicted on the brain. Namely, that particular part of Oberst that is responsible for ʽHit The Switchʼ and ʽDevil In The Detailsʼ, should be dragged out into the street and shot: lines like "sometimes I pray I don't die, I'm a goddamn hypocrite", sung in that particular manner, make me want to cart him off at least as far as Somali or something like that. But less straightforward stuff like ʽShip In A Bottleʼ shows that he is just as capable of confessionalism without bad-actor overplay — and he is also capable of smarter-than-average social preaching on tunes like ʽLight Pollutionʼ.
Actually, somewhere around mid-album the electronic beats and loops almost disappear, and by the time we get to the end, the digital soldiers have mostly been assimilated by traditionally oriented guys, reduced to performing valuable background services. The best is saved for last: ʽEasy / Lucky / Freeʼ is an almost seductive combo of rhythmic loops, dreamy slide guitars à la Beach House, and well-arranged harmonies. As an anthemic coda, it has none of the questionable kitsch of ʽRoad To Joyʼ, never goes over the top, and delivers its condemnation of society's sins in an almost, dare I say it, mature kind of way.
Still, it is beyond my powers to clearly state that Digital Ash is a «thumbs up» sort of album. As with Fevers And Mirrors, I'd rather stay neutral about it, because, on the general scale of things, little has changed. Oberst's lyrics, bar a few blatant exceptions, get more complex and tempting for intellectual analysis, but they were never awful to begin with. His vocals here only make me want to throttle him a few times, but even when they don't, he still whines his way through without the slightest touch of humor and irony — and, for that matter, why the hell is he handling all the lead vocal duties himself again? And the melodies, for the most part, still suck: use of electronics and this subtle gradual transition from «all-out digital» to «mostly analog» helps cope with that fact, but does not eliminate it.
Still, if faced with the necessity of choice, I would definitely take Digital Ash over Wide Awake, because I am afraid of Bright Eyes fans, and I know that for most of them, it is Oberst's bleeding hearted sincerity that serves as the major vitamin, so the more layers of sound this guy can use to muff and choke that sincerity, the more beats and loops he weaves into that bandage that causes the heart to bleed internally rather than externally, the safer I am. What sort of stupid jerk ever said that sincerity was important in music, anyway? Oh, that's right, I did. But that was before I got acquainted with the Bright Eyes catalog, so don't be too hard on me.