Bright Eyes

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning/ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek)

If comparing Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst to Bob Dylan seemed like a stretch before, then take a look at his latest two-album release, which may be the LP equivalent of Dylan's infamous "Royal Albert Hall" concert. Omaha's 24-year-old musical savant has ridden waves of praise for heartfelt, Americana-filled albums, but here he comes to please fans with the first disc and then challenge them with the second. Still, the differences aren't as simple as "Royal Albert"'s unplugged and plugged sides. Awake relies on folk and blues styles, crafting detailed stories and poetry atop simple structures like childhood sing-alongs and Spanish waltzes. The approach puts stress on Awake's emotional theme--the confusion of growing up in America, told through Oberst's frustrations with politics, love and chemicals. "Lua" thrives on the thinnest musical threads, allowing lines like "Me, I'm not a gamble/You can count on me to split" to take direct aim, but other songs find rare boosts in slide guitars, mandolins, organs and guest musicians who show up at all the right moments. Emmylou Harris practically steals Awake with her haunting vocals in "Land Locked Blues." The song's poetry teeters dangerously close to cliché, but Oberst's and Harris' strained delivery, along with a burst of horns and keys midway through, transcend the potential emo to deliver a beautiful portrait of pain. And if Awake's strength is its lyrics, Digital comes together through its sounds, descending directly from the electronic tracks on sophomore LP Letting Off the Happiness. That is to say, guitars and synthesizers are added in moderate doses to the band's acoustic formula, rather than overloaded, but Oberst shuts up a little more on Digital. His vocal reduction benefits the string-filled trip-hop of "Down in a Rabbit Hole" and the synth-enhanced masterpiece "I Believe in Symmetry," with Oberst's pleading at song's end boosted by mind-blowing guitarwork courtesy of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner. Still, Digital sounds more like a smattering of singles than a unified LP, and only for that reason does it pale to Awake. Otherwise, pick the Bright Eyes you prefer--poetry or sonics--and then ease yourself into the other side. Worked for Dylan, right?

 
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