Eyes Without a Face
Conor Oberst Remains Restless and Bright

I know, I know, I’m late again. I have no excuses – I finished my script on Wednesday, basked in some good early reviews from friends and collaborators, and spent the next two days just recharging my batteries. It’s off to other projects next week – a screenplay, a book of my uncle’s writings – but I am determined to keep my weekly column schedule. No vacations!

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Conor Oberst is only 24 years old.

I wasn’t going to bring that up, but then I got a letter from the Saddle Creek Records legal team. Apparently, it’s the law – reviewers are obligated to mention Oberst’s young age within the first paragraph or two of any article about his Bright Eyes project. I’m trying to avoid jail time – last time I was there, well, let’s just say it wasn’t Camp Cupcake and leave it at that. So: Conor Oberst is only 24 years old.

I assume I’m supposed to include this factoid because it’s apparently astounding that he’s such an accomplished songwriter, performer and recording artist at 24. It’s not a new observation – only the number has changed in the last 10 years or so. Oberst was in and out of his first recording band, Commander Venus, by age 15, and releasing albums as Bright Eyes by 17. He formed Saddle Creek Records with his Venus bandmates, who went on to start projects like Cursive and The Faint, and he’s resisted all attempts by major labels to woo him away.

And I think he probably got tagged with the “boy genius” thing by age 18, when the homemade wonder Letting Off the Happiness hit stores. Oberst set himself up as a literary lo-fi poet, garnering a flood of “indie Bob Dylan” comparisons, and with every subsequent release, he’s worked hard to simultaneously live up to and topple that image. He has remained a lyricist first and a melodicist second, like Dylan, and his shaky voice is still the dealbreaker for a lot of newbies, but other than that, Bright Eyes has evolved considerably.

One thing that gets glossed over in all the Dylan references is that Oberst makes weird records. The experience of listening to Bright Eyes’ cobbled-together debut with the cobbled-together title (A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997) has little to do with the songs themselves. It’s about how the impassioned basement recordings wrap you up in their wobbly spell. The missed beats and sub-demo quality become an integral part of the sound and style, in a strange way. Oberst uses the sound of his records to tell part of the story – 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors crashed to earth with snarling guitars and gloomy lyrics, while 2002’s Lifted built huge studio constructs with choirs and orchestras.

So when critics commented on the incongruous physical sound of the two new Bright Eyes albums, I was a bit baffled. No two Oberst projects have sounded quite the same, but the songs have remained identifiably Bright Eyes, and there’s no mistaking that yelping, barely-restrained voice. After Lifted’s 70-plus-minute monolithic statements, in fact, I figured Oberst would have to do one of two things – keep on going, and produce a huge mess of a record drowned in production, or strip back and make a simple little collection of ditties.

And it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that he’s done both. Simultaneous album releases are not a new thing – just ask Axl Rose, if you can find him – but rarely has that tactic made as much sense as it does here. Oberst has picked a direction by going in both directions at once, and his two new albums are so different from each other, tonally speaking, that calling them both Bright Eyes discs can only be a conscious decision to expand his own definition. Perhaps stranger still is the fact that neither one sounds an awful lot like previous Bright Eyes records. This is an expression of artistic restlessness that can’t help but make me happy, if only for its own sake.

But how are the discs themselves? Start with I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, if only because it shares the most connection with Bright Eyes past. This little record – 10 songs in 45 minutes – follows from the sparser and more country-folk moments of Lifted. The orchestrations are still here, but this time they are more muted and shiny. The horn section on “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” never even threatens to overpower the sweet acoustic waltz, and Oberst takes away everything but voices and guitar for a couple of tracks, most prominently the single, “Lua.”

These are easily the most traditional-sounding songs Oberst has written. I had to check to make sure “Another Travelin’ Song” isn’t a cover, so old-time country is its sound, and in “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order),” Oberst has come up with a classic, beautifully set to horn lines and piano. This is such a traditional American country-folk record that Emmylou Harris guest-stars on a few songs, and her wavering alto fits right in. After the 10-minute epics on Lifted, I’m Wide Awake sounds positively unambitious, but it revels in its simplicity, and the crashing sound of old does get one workout, on closing Beethoven homage “Road to Joy.”

But by and large, Oberst has reserved his sonic experimentation for the other album, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. It’s billed as a full-on embrace of electronic studio wizardry, and yet the cover drawing is of a man vomiting numbers into a toilet. With the title and packaging, Oberst seems almost embarrassed by this excursion, providing plausible deniability for his indie cred. Should Digital Ash need to be written off as an ill-advised sidestep in the coming years, Oberst has made it easy by building that sense into the packaging.

Happily, it does not appear in the record itself. Digital Ash is, in fact, a full-on embrace of electronic studio wizardry, especially in its first half. Ambient synths pulse, programmed drums collide, and Oberst’s voice is processed and alien. Sonically, it’s like hearing an old friend in an entirely new setting. Luckily, Oberst didn’t abandon his responsibility as a songwriter – just about all of these songs could be played with his band instead of programmed, and serve as perfectly acceptable Bright Eyes tunes. Had he written for the studio, I doubt this project would be as successful as it is.

Of the two new records, Digital Ash is the more interesting, and not just because of the production. Songs like “Down In a Rabbit Hole” would be fascinating even without the compressed electronic drums and screechy synth tones, and “Light Pollution” is almost rock-band organic as it is. “Ship in a Bottle” may be the best song on either disc, and the screaming baby sound near the two-minute mark ought to startle you a bit. That said, the studio has not freed Oberst as much as it might have, only supported him in new ways. Given a few listens to make sense of the keyboard webs, this is most definitely a Bright Eyes album, and while the songs are good, they are not to the level of the best stuff on Lifted.

My primary criticism of this two-album endeavor is that since Oberst has made some obviously deliberate style choices, his work is of necessity limited on each disc. Whereas Lifted (and, to a smaller degree, Fevers and Mirrors) glimmered with unpredictability, by the fourth song on each of these new ones, you know what you’re in for. A mixture of the two sessions would have resulted in a schizophrenic work, to be sure, but one with a more adventurous nature. In a way, Oberst knew what he was going to get when he started these projects, so the end results are less of a ride than he has delivered before.

These are definitely the two most smoothed-out and accessible Bright Eyes records available, too. Oberst’s voice is reined in, for the most part – he brings the passion at the end of “Road to Joy,” but otherwise his trademark high, fragile caterwaul is largely absent. If this is evidence of the end of his musical adolescence, then there’s nothing to be done – even child prodigies have to grow up sometime.

Oberst has certainly delivered here, and his music is still touching and odd. The trick will be to keep maturing without losing the gut-rumbling edge he has always had. That edge is in somewhat short supply on Wide Awake and Digital Ash, and while it’s great that Oberst is evolving sonically and continuing to branch out, his music doesn’t ache like it used to. But hell, he has time, and a hopefully long and prolific career ahead of him. (Did I mention that he’s only 24?) If he can learn to mix impact with imagination, he’ll be incredible someday.

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First Will Eisner, then Johnny Carson, and now Ossie Davis. Damn, this year sucks. Even if I didn’t appreciate Davis as an actor (which I do), I would respect him for this little fact: he was married to the great Ruby Dee for twice as long as I have been alive. That’s just amazing.

Next week, a musical treatise I missed last year, and then Julian Cope and Tori Amos.

See you in line Tuesday morning.