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Bright Eyes sparkles on ‘Digital Ash’

Kerry O'Conner | Thursday, February 10, 2005

In February 2004, Bright Eyes’ front man Conor Oberst finished recording a 10-song album entitled “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” a collection of folky indie-pop he had written about his change in lifestyle since Oberst had moved to New York from the Midwest. However, before this album would see the light of day, Oberst decided he was not finished in the studio. He returned to Omaha, Neb. to record a second record – this one an experimental electronic album. He emerged three months later with a quirky masterpiece “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” released simultaneously two weeks ago with “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.”The album begins, like all other Bright Eyes albums, with an opening sequence. This one is atmospheric, subtle and abstract, as if indicating the album is a departure from Bright Eyes’ traditional sound. It is interesting to hear once in awhile, but for most listens the album begins on track two.For being an electronic album, the songs themselves feel organic, natural and familiar – it is not the type of music that comes to mind when the word “electronic” is used. The simple instrumentation puts Oberst’s melodies at the forefront. The lyrics are incredibly personal and immediately relatable. He recounts simple, special memories from his past like “hooded sweatshirt walks” or “spreading out the blankets on the beach,” making each event feel monumental. His tone is nostalgic, perhaps even sorrowful, accepting that time has passed and life changes during that time.Aside from these personal lyrics, two other themes dominate the remainder of the album – death and logic. The bamboo-tinged “Arc of Time” explores the circle of life and death and our inability to escape from it. Many of the other songs point out human hypocrisy and subtly touch on politics. In terms of the texture of the album, “Digital Ash” is extremely well produced. The songs feel lush, warm and full of energy. Many of the songs, like the beautiful “Gold Mine Gutted,” sound as if they are gliding by on a cloud of smoke. Bright Eyes’ past albums have been full of songs recorded (intentionally) at terrible audio quality, and the breezy soundscapes of this album are proof that Oberst has matured.”Digital Ash” has its share of masterpieces. “Take it Easy [Love Nothing],” co-produced by Jimmy Tamborello (The Postal Service), is the most irresistible song released this year. Oberst tells an inside-out love story, and the beat carrying the song mimics the storyline, giving as much emotion as Oberst’s voice. Immediately following this is a simple thoughtful song called “Hit The Switch,” full of intense personal lyrics that ironically seem the most relatable. Oberst’s quivering voice gives chilling messages in this song – messages about getting older, times changing and about the necessity to accept what life gives. Debating again on the nature of life and death – Oberst comes to a sudden conclusion, “Night rolls around and it just starts making sense / … / there is no right way or wrong way / you just have to live. / So I do what I do and at least I exist.” His voice will send shivers down your spine.To listeners familiar with Bright Eyes’ previous albums, the experimental “Digital Ash” might seem like a more natural continuum as compared to his other new album, as Bright Eyes’ albums have been progressive consistently in music style. Where “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning” is a mature album aiming for greatness and critical acclaim, “Digital Ash” is warm, heartfelt and personal. The album retains some of the excesses typical of Oberst’s songs – strange noises, some dark, depressing songs and a word or two sung out of tune.However, there are more hits than misses on this record, and it is these inconsistencies – these ups and downs – that have become a trademark of Oberst’s writing style. This is what makes the album so memorable.