erasing clouds

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

reviewed by matthew webber

I could do without the drugs, obsessive fans, and flings with infamous shoplifters. But, in one aspect, I wish I were Bright Eyes' maestro Conor Oberst: Jesus, this kid can write lyrics!

In a different century, sometime before recorded sound, Oberst would have been a now-anthologized poet, scribbling his verses with quills instead of typewriters. (Indeed, the Nebraskan wonder boy's legend has grown so urbanized, I've heard he types his lyrics. It's so good a myth, I don't care whether it's real. I don't care whether he invented it just to have something to sing about in "Another Travelin' Song.")

Had this mythical Oberst followed Axl Rose's kilt-wearing forebears, I have no doubt that he, too, would have been so prodigious as to release his Use Your Illustrated Manuscripts I and II on the same day. Instead of reinterpreting Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which he does today (on "Road to Joy"), he might have inspired it. Or at least he would have courted some wenches.

But, as a 21st century analog boy, the poetry most accessible to Oberst and his fans is the poetry of rock critics who weave their metaphors as clumsily as, um, clumsy rock critics. It's been easy for them to praise Oberst's last decade of work with Bright Eyes and innumerable other side projects, beginning in his puberty, as that of the latest New Dylan, but harder for them to make non-Saddle Creek (the Nebraska-based indie label) aficionados buy it. Having heard his voice as whiny and knowing Oberst more as yet another Winona Ryder paramour than as a musician, I stayed away from the kid with the sad, bright eyes.

Until 2005, that is, when Oberst pulled a Nelly by dropping two albums on the same day, a feat that inspired fawning profiles in at least three major music magazines, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today, so I couldn't even escape the dude at the dentist.

To listeners like myself just now discovering Oberst's story/songs of alcoholic insomnia and bleary-eyed, only-living-boy-in-New York nightwalking, the acoustic half of Bright Eyes' double play, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, is an album to be read, bursting like one of Oberst's own bursting wildflowers (in "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)") with imagery and metaphors.

"Stars that clear have been dead for years," sings Oberst, "but the idea still lives on." (In "We Are Nowhere and It's Now.") Here's another snapshot: "All the way home held your camera like a bible, just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth." (Again, in "Old Soul Song.") Taken out of context, these words might lose their brightness, but hidden among other gems, they shine.

The music on the album teems with alt-country trappings: harmonica, pedal steel, mandolin, Emmylou Harris' singing harmony. All which makes Oberst the most Dylan-est New Dylan yet, with those labyrinthine lyrics and a voice that emotes so painfully it's sometimes painful to listen to. I react to Oberst exactly as I react to Dylan: I respect and appreciate his obvious talent without completely loving it. Without more memorable melodies, I can't be the fan whose only non-Hawaiian shirts he owns are concert T-shirts with his favorite musician's photo. (A true story.)

Oberst is clearly a more prolific and poetic songwriter than I am. In a word, he's better, and I would never claim otherwise. Perhaps he's better at singer/songwriting than I am at writing anything, you might say. But, although I dream of singing songs to an audience reading lyric sheets instead of watching me sit on a stool, I also dream of sticking my songs in their heads.

Months after I bought my first Bright Eyes album, not enough of Oberst's songs are stuck.

But I still pore over those liner notes.


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