Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
Bill Cummings 24/01/2005
Conor Oberst has been making music since he was 14, and on albums like “Letting Off The Happiness” and “Fevers And Mirrors” the Saddle Creek signing has depicted a rare if somewhat patchy talent. Slated as the follow up to Lifted…, this album has been billed as the acoustic side of the two Bright Eyes releases. The album certainly has a rootsy world-weary feel, bringing to mind the alternative country of Whiskeytown and personal and social commentary of Dylan rather than the emo sound that some accuse him of. Opener “At The Bottom Of Everything” is a delightful country ditty aided by of Jim James (of My Morning
Jacket)'s backing vocal that adds a beautiful warmness to the twisted chorus lines of ”While my mother plants my father loads his gun/He says death will give us back to God, just like the setting sun is returned to the lonesome ocean”. This track sets up some of the themes of the record questioning spirituality, yourself, and the war in Iraq.
Second track “We Are Nowhere And It's Now” is a dreamy, acoustic-led waltz that unravels itself in stages before exploding with Conor's quivering voice and lines “I've been sleeping so strange at night/With a head full of pesticide”. Backing vocals by Emmylou Harris add a romantic fragility to this swoonsome lullaby. “Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)” contains a gorgeous alt-country sound that is blessed with heart-tugging strings and Conor's voice, here he is on magisterial form, recounting a protest march, his
hushed voice recounting the moment when they went “wild”. This is where Conor showcases his lyrical ability: he is able to shift from the personal and the small scale moment to the larger themes in one line.
Single “Lua” is a gorgeous little ditty: here, Conor is pitched as the lonesome crooner. He delivers withering heart tugging lines with a voice that knows pain. At times he lays himself bare: “When everythingis lonely I can be my own best friend”, “The mask I polish in the evening by the morning looks like shit”. Elsewhere “Train Under Water” starts promisingly enough before becoming rather bland, while “First Day Of My Life” is a gorgeously crumpled up love song wrapped up in a warm duvet - “You said this is the first day of my life. I'm glad I didn't die before I met you. But now I don't care I could go anywhere with you and I'd probably be happy”. ”Another travelling song” ups the pace: it's an enjoyable country romp in the style of Dylan's “Jack of Hearts” that tackles writer's block with lines like “Now I'm hunched over a typewriter I guess you'd call that painting in a cave”. Conor's lyrics do touch upon the war in Iraq, not surprising since he did play a series of anti-Bush gigs with the likes of REM. He subtly touches upon it with “Landlocked Blues” where he is able to mix the personal and political; lines like “We made love on the living room floor/With the noise in the background of a televised war…and in that deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say/If we walk away they'll walk away/But greed is a bottomless pit/And our freedom's a joke we're just taking the piss”/ At thispoint, Conor's words reach that of social commentator; he is able to find the words to sum up people's disenchantment with a war they didn't want.
Penultimate track “Poison Oak” is a swoonsome, string-led widescreen ballad that takes in Conor's childhood, his new found love (“the yellow bird that I've been waiting for”) and his own songwriting. The gentle verses lead in to a explosive chorus of “The end of paralysis I was a statuette now I'm drunk as hell on a piano bench/And when I press the keys it all gets reversed the sound of loneliness makes me happier”: it's one of the best things on this record. Lastly is “Road To Joy”, which sounds like a folkversion of the Charge Of The Light Brigade and is astounding, Conor's words again straddle the personal and political like no other contemporary lyricist around. On my initial listens I marked this album as a classic, an album that would define a generation, however on repeated listens and after my initial excitement at actually hearing the record had died down, I realised that there are a few musically forgettable moments that prevent this from being a five star effort. However it is a very good album that just falls short of being the defining moment of Oberst's career. It's also an album where he shows he has the power to communicate personal metaphors with the wider political issues: with a backing that has been honed over years of carving out an alt-country/folk sound. An album where he proves yet again that he has the musical variation and power to connect that mark him out as one of the best contemporary songwriters around.