Back in November, Bright Eyes (real name: Conor Oberst) became the first artist since P. Diddy in 1997 (he was Puff Daddy back then) to own the top two positions on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles Sales chart — an amazing feat for a one-man band whose last album sold just over 175,000 units.
On Jan. 25, Oberst will simultaneously release the two albums —“I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” and “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” — that feature both songs. Each track works as an ideal indicator of the different sound of the two discs. “Lua” — the best thing on either — is a sparse acoustic guitar number with Oberst nearly whispering convincing lines like “Me I’m not a gamble/ You can count on me to split” over a simple chord progression. “Lua” is taken from the first of the discs to be recorded, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” which for the most part is a folk-rock record reminiscent of the singer/songwriter albums of the ’70s.
“Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” from “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn” is closer in approach to new, new wavers like the Postal Service and not coincidentally, Postal Service member Jimmy Tamborello programs the track. Digital is the key word here, and “Ash” sounds like a hit record at least in terms of studio sheen. Rock guitars (often by Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner) mesh with hard drum loops, keyboards, digital blips and an occasional string section. But the album is the less memorable of the two, as Oberst’s warbling tenor is better suited to Americana.
“Wide Awake’s” lead track starts off unnecessarily with a forgetful spoken story about a despondent woman in a plane crash. It’s a shame, because when the music finally starts Oberst is in top-form, spinning neo-Dylan linguistics such as: “While my mother waters plants/ my father shoots his gun.” My Morning Jacket’s Jim James stops by to harmonize nicely on the chorus and Emmylou Harris lends tender backing vocals to three songs.
Oberst, a critic’s darling, has been recording since age 13 and sings about being outfitted with a “subscription to the Socialist Review.” On both discs, it’s Oberst’s matured social critiques that set these recordings apart from previous efforts. He attacks faith: “My parents they have their religion but sleep in different beds”; politics: “In the ear of every anarchist we ... must sing”; even agricultural ethics, his dreams affected by a “head full of pesticides.”
The underlying theme here seems to be about feeling more and more like a stranger in one’s own country and living in the margins of a reality show/ televised war/ “sickening sprawl” society. On “Road To Joy” Oberst laments “I could have been a famous singer/ If I had someone else’s voice, but failure’s always sounded better ... Make some noise.”