When writing about Conor Oberst, the singer/songwriter who records with an ever-changing group of musicians under the name Bright Eyes, it's customary to state his age within the first few sentences of the piece. It is also not uncommon to read comparisons between this Nebraskan singer/songwriter and Bob Dylan, the best-known singer/songwriter to hail from the Midwest. This serves a specific purpose -- to establish a context for Oberst's songwriting, to imply that he's some kind of "genius," not in the least for writing and recording albums at such a young age, particularly since he's been recording since the age of 13. And so many albums, too! Taking a page from the Robert Pollard handbook, he equates prolificacy with profoundness, releasing multiple records each year, sometimes under different band names. All these pop critic clichés repeated ad infinitum in the new millennium's overheated media circuit settled into conventional wisdom not long after the release of his fourth proper album, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, in 2002. Positive reviews, all praising his ambition, endless lyrics, and apparent sincerity, flowed in and a cult started to form around Oberst. By 2004, he was nearly inescapable, appearing everywhere from The O.C. -- where Lifted was part of the Seth Cohen Starter Pack -- to representing the younger generation on Moveon.org's Vote for Change tour (which could be a reason why John Kerry couldn't motivate collegiate voters), culminating in Bright Eyes suddenly and surprisingly topping the Billboard singles charts with two singles.
All this set the stage for the release of a pair of new Bright Eyes albums in the first weeks of 2005: the acoustic-based I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the electronic-inflected Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. The timing is no accident: big albums are rarely released in the musical graveyard of January, so Oberst had no competition for headlines this time around. He was in every magazine, from Rolling Stone to Newsweek, and the reviews were uniformly positive, trotting out all the familiar "gifted youth" and "next Dylan" boilerplate, but this time, there was a difference. Most reviews were written from the perspective that it was taken for granted that this kid sure was a genius, the next great rock & roll star. It was as if standing on-stage with Michael Stipe and Bruce Springsteen in the fall of 2004 was tantamount to Oberst inheriting their throne as rock statesmen, even if his music has little, if anything, to do with that of R.E.M. or the Boss, or for anything that could be construed as mass popular music, for that matter. Oberst comes from the post-ironic stream of indie rock, not quite emo but certainly not part of the arch, alternately ironic and bittersweet aesthetic that marked the style's heyday in the first two-thirds of the '90s. He's leapfrogged over Chris Carrabba in Dashboard Confessional to be the figurehead for how a certain strand of modern rock is judged solely on whether it's a personal emotional expression or not, never taking into account such niceties as craft, in either music or lyrics, or in the sheer impact of the music. It's a million miles removed from the sprawling narratives of Springsteen, the jangled Southern mysticism of R.E.M., or certainly, the poetry and roadhouse rock & roll of Bob Dylan, and nowhere is that clearer than on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, Oberst's first high-profile, straight-ahead singer/songwriter record.
Last time around, Oberst shoved all of his interests into one long, overstuffed pseudo-epic, but with I'm Wide Awake and Digital Ash, he isolates the country-rock confessionals on the former and saves the messy modernistic indie rock for the latter, as if to counter the criticisms that he can't focus. I'm Wide Awake is designed as a nakedly honest singer/songwriter album, somewhat inspired by the classics of the genre in the '70s -- he even recruits Emmylou Harris for some harmonies, hoping that some of the old Gram Parsons magic will rub off -- but its directness reveals that the emperor has no clothes. Stripped of the careening, dramatic, meandering arrangements of Lifted, Oberst's music seems not simpler, but simplistic, the plodding music acting as a bed for monochromatic melodies that merely serve as a delivery mechanism for all those words he's poured out on the page. Far from being the second coming of Dylan, Oberst is as precious as Paul Simon, but without any sense of rhyme or meter or gift for imagery, puking out lines filled with cheap metaphors and clumsy words that don't scan. Supporters excuse this as soul searching, but the heavy-handed pretension in the words and the affectedness in his delivery -- not to mention the quavering bleat that's halfway between Feargal Sharkey and the Dead Milkmen's Rodney Anonymous -- give the whole enterprise a sense of phoniness that's only enhanced by its unadorned production. When Oberst was swallowed in the deliberate grandeur of Lifted, his drama-queen theatrics fit the music, but here, they expose him for the shallow poseur he is. As the record winds down, it's clear that Bright Eyes is little more than a pretty boy in a sweater whose idea of being clever is appropriating Beethoven's Ode to Joy for "Road to Joy" -- a move that makes you grateful that Billy Joel at least knew enough Beethoven to steal a lesser-known melody for "This Night" (and, being the standup guy that he is, Billy gave him a co-writing credit, something Conor doesn't do here).
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is designed to be the musical polar opposite to I'm Wide Awake, to be the ambitious, modernistic electronic record that stands in contrast to the sepia-toned, classicist acoustic LP, but it suffers from nearly all the same flaws as its companion. The production and arrangements may have changed, but the music still serves as little more than a vehicle for Oberst's tortured prose. Here, the lines are clipped instead of languid as they are on I'm Wide Awake, but instead of scaling back his words and sharpening his attack, he piles on even more words, littering the songs with awkward allusions and clunky couplets. While the music moves the words forward more here than on I'm Wide Awake, it's merely as punctuation for certain lyrical phrases, not for the song as a whole. Nevertheless, that variety in the music makes Digital Ash a more interesting listen than its companion, but only up to a certain point. Ultimately, it's hard not to feel that this album is little more than a blatant attempt to ape the Postal Service's Give Up, right down to Jimmy Tamborello's appearance halfway through the LP. Not that rip-offs are necessarily a bad thing -- it's at the heart of pop music -- but since Oberst lacks the most basic musical skill, which is to know how to make music sound good on a sheer sonic level, Digital Ash collapses in a mess of preening pretension. And don't chalk up its weakness to youth, either, or suggest that he'll get better with age. Paul McCartney was 22 at the height of Beatlemania. At the age of 23, Dylan made Bringing It All Back Home, Neil Young released Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and Jackson Browne cut his debut. Kurt Cobain was 24 when Nirvana recorded Nevermind, the same age Conor Oberst was when he released the pair of albums that prove without a shadow of a doubt that instead of reaching musical maturity, he's wallowing in a perpetual adolescence.