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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bright Eyes: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning


1) At The Bottom Of Everything; 2) We Are Nowhere And It's Now; 3) Old Soul Song (For The New World Order); 4) Lua; 5) Train Under Water; 6) First Day Of My Life; 7) Another Travelin' Song; 8) Landlocked Blues; 9) Poison Oak; 10) Road To Joy.

How difficult can it be for a young artist to record two full-length albums at the same time and re­lease them simultaneously? Maybe not too difficult if the artist in question does not bother to write any new melodies on either one. Why bother, indeed, if a bunch of anonymous hillbillies, Woody Guthrie, and Ludwig van Beethoven already did all the job for you. The good news is — none of them are going to show up and sue you when you least expect it.

Okay, that might have been a little harsh. But the really weird thing here is that it is I'm Wide Awake that got the most critical praise, rather than Digital Ash, and from a strictly musical point of view, there is no way that this could be justified — Digital Ash would be largely experimental and at least occasionally successful, whereas I'm Wide Awake sounds like it could have been re­corded in the heart of Nashville by a bunch of understudies awarded a couple of hours in one of the city's studios (the actual sessions all took place somewhere in Nebraska).

Yes, Emmylou Harris, whom I do respect a lot and whose talents and gifts I acknowledge quite gratefully, does contribute backing or dueting vocals on three of these tracks — this reflects Co­nor's odd, hypnotizing talent (one of the very few talents he does have) to attract celebrities to give his non-descript creations more «weight». It would have been much better, though, if he just handed all the vocal duties to her, or, for that matter, to Maria Taylor, who had already made that Christmas experience so much lovelier than one would expect — now, again, she is reduced to backups on just two of the songs. What's that he says on ʽLand Locked Bluesʼ? "If you love some­thing, give it away"? Well, how about giving away the right to sing lead, when there are all those lovely ladies around you, Conor?

Okay, seriously now. The music here is all generic country and folk, half of it arranged with the bare minimum of instruments (simple acoustic guitar, sometimes with a quiet rhythm section or an extra guitar part in the background), the other half getting the full country treatment — slide and steel guitars, harmonicas, a bit of keyboards, an occasional trumpet, the works. The only ex­ception to the genre rule is ʽRoad To Joyʼ, which takes the textbook part of Beethoven's 9th and turns it into a country tune, too, slowly building up the volume and aggression level towards the end. A meaningful musical joke? Maybe if it capped off an album of startling originality and in­ventiveness, I could say yes. As it is, I find that I cannot.

Of course, it's all in the attitude. But we already know the attitude, and the attitude hasn't changed much. As somebody who finds himself completely unable and unwilling to fall under the spell with which Conor Oberst frequently turns people into his personal slaves («Conor Oberst sends shivers down my spine, and I'm not afraid to admit it», quoth the Pitchfork review guy who gave this album an 8.7), I still find his lyrics creative and, perhaps, even getting craftier and craftier with each new record (a line like "the sun came up with no conclusions" is crafty, you'll have to admit it), but the way that he gets them out of his system is, at worst, very poor theater, and at best, a repulsive overstatement of his sincerity. This is not a Shakespearian universe. We're living in post-Dylan times, and if you can't cope with that, well, get yourself a time machine or some­thing. The combination of these simple-as-hell melodic skeletons with this atmosphere of pathos and cosmic suffering is unbearably ridiculous.

At least most of the tunes are relatively short (except for the worst ones, which are usually long because they crawl along at snailish tempos), consist of more than one chord, occasionally — ve­ry rarely — develop into mildly pleasant country jamming (ʽTrain Under Waterʼ is a damn fine sound for everyone who isn't completely alergic to country — that is, whenever Oberst shuts up and lets the instrumental players take over), and sporadically — even more rarely — come close to having a tiny bit of an original vocal hook (e. g. the "...yeah they go wild" bit on ʽOld Soul Songʼ, which, going against its title, is one of the most individualistic tunes on here).

Hence, I have no violent hate towards the record, nor would I care to propagate any. Maybe the cunning young lad from Omaha was right in using Emmylou Harris and Ludwig van as protec­tive talismans — their ex- and implicit presence, respectively, is what turns I'm Wide Awake from a middle-of-the-road modern country album into something that can get a rave review from Pitch­fork. But I would rather go along with the reknowned Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the AMG, who said this of Oberst: «Instead of reaching musical maturity, he's wallowing in a perpetual ado­lescence». Brilliantly said, mister, even if I disagree with your mainstreamish judgements some­thing like 70% of all the times. But here, you have entitled me to my next thumbs down.

Check "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" (CD) on Amazon
Check "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. come on George can't you get over your dislike of Oberst just this once and admit that 'landlocked blues' and 'we are nowhere and it's now' are absolutely cracking tunes.

    1. Can't.

      They are good (if utterly generic) tunes, but they are made by the singing. Like I said - if he'd just let Emmylou sing on her own, they would be passable.

    2. I won't argue with generic; the music on this, on Cassadega and the solo record which came after (and which I really liked) is unoriginal and to a good extent derivative. And like you I too was put off by the adolescent hysterics of his early records (though there were enough glimpses of genuine talent shining through for me not to be completely dismissive). But I think that Oberst actually started to master his craft on this record which meant for one thing that he learned to restrain himself which makes it emotionally speaking much more interesting. In the end I was really touched by this record having come to it as somewhat of sceptic. For me the simplicity of the tunes and the arrangements adds to the vulnerability of the lyrics and the shaky, not always on key, voice. And I will repeat: he's written some really good melodies on this record.

  2. Now wouldn't it be fantastic if, say, William Fitzsimmons covered the entire Bright Eyes catalog...?

  3. Please, GS, don't even try. The reviews in which you can't get over your dislike belong to your best, like the ones of Uriah Heep albums. And remember - I'm more or less a fan.
    Rather should Confused guy explain why exactly those tunes are so good.
    As far as I'm concerned, Emmylou Harris blows Oberst away in Landlocked Blues. Could that guy at least sing in key? Oh wait, that's the charm, because it sounds heartfelt and such.
    Well, I find it just annoying. Ian Gillan didn't need to sing off key when singing If a blind Man cries. Hé sends some shivers down my spince (at least back in 1972, not the last 20 years or so).

  4. you're the first person to ever get this album EXACTLY RIGHT, george. thank you, again. i read this blog for hours at a time.

  5. Not even any love for "First Day of My Life?"

  6. I despise "Landlocked Blues." That is seriously one of the most annoying songs I've ever heard in my life.