Conor Oberst, the lead singer and creative force behind the band Bright Eyes, is one of those ridiculously accomplished young people who make you wonder what you’ve been doing with your life. The 24-year-old Oberst started performing when he was 13, and since then he has written nearly 100 songs, most of which have been released on a record label he started himself. When Bright Eyes released two albums on the same day in late January?I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn?the precocious Nebraskan received the kind of attention usually reserved for musicians many years his senior.
The pale-faced, stringy-haired Oberst is now the bright young thing in indie music. In the words of the New Yorker, he is “Indie rock’s reigning poet-prince,” and many critics have compared him to a young Bob Dylan. Of course there is a great deal of precedence for declaring some young songwriter the “next Dylan” in the pop music world, and few artists who receive that tag can live up to its expectations. Even so Oberst is a talented songwriter and all the positive attention seems warranted. Though his songs are occasionally earnest and lyrically clich?, they are unabashedly passionate and filled with the desire of a spiritual seeker. At their best, they remind you of what it was like to be a heartbroken college kid. As Sasha Frere-Jones noted in the New Yorker, his songs “deal with the states of high dudgeon that are native to teenagers everywhere” and his “wobbling voice and overstuffed couplets call to mind late-night dorm-room epiphanies.”
Of the two new albums, I’m Wide Wake is the superior. A simple, unadorned album that consists mostly of Oberst on his acoustic guitar. I’m Wide Wake was recorded quickly?some songs reportedly only took one take. This lends the songs an energy and immediacy that is largely absent from Digital Ash, a meticulously mixed album full of bleeps and synthesizers that feels cold and inert. (Two exceptions are the hooky “Take it Easy (Love Nothing) and the hypnotic “Easy/Lucky/Free.”)
In many ways, I’m Wide Awake sounds like any number of country-flavored rock albums that are popular among the public radio set (unsurprisingly NPR fave Emmy Lou Harris makes an appearance). What separates it from an album by say, Lucinda Williams or Steve Earl is that it’s less-jaded, more na?ve. On the one hand, Oberst does not have the life experience that these older artists do, but he is also less bitter, less angry at the world. Make no mistake: at age 24, Oberst has been through his share of loss and heartbreak, but there’s an innocence at the heart of I’m Wide Wake that’s charming. In Another Traveling Song, he declares “Nothing in the past or future will ever feel like today.” It’s nice to be reminded of the times in your life when your life was ruled by this kind of hope.
Of course, like many young writers, Oberst writes his share of bad poetry. “But it all boils down to one quotable phrase” he sings on “Landlocked Blues.” “If you love something give it away.” Still Oberst is clearly able to craft some beautiful lines. “Because what is simple in the moonlight,” Oberst sings on I’m Wide Awake’s “Lua,” “by the morning never is.”
While at times, his more political songs can seem heavy-handed, there’s at least one moment on I’m Wide Awake where he displays a Dylan-esque ability to capture perfectly the anger and frustration that many feel toward the current administration. “So when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing, it’s best to join the side that’s going to win,” he screams on “Road to Joy.” “And no one’s sure how it all got started, but we’re going to make them damn certain how it’s going to end.”
Oberst songs also contain a spiritual longing that is uncommon among rock musicians, especially those of his generation. In “We are Nowhere and It’s Now” for example, he sings: “Why are you scared to dream of God, when it’s salvation that you want.” Oberst has acknowledged his Catholic upbringing has informed his songwriting. Like writer-director Alexander Payne, Oberst hails from Omaha, Nebraska. In fact both artists were raised Catholic and went to the same Catholic high school?though they were years apart. Together they’ve helped to make their unlikely hometown unexpectedly hip.
Oberst once commented during an interview with the Montreal Mirror. “These ideas of God and afterlife and sin seem very abstract, but they’re part of how I grew up, so inevitably they affect the way I think. I went through a period of intense atheism, but now I find myself going back and forth between feeling like there are things at work besides biology, and feeling like it’s complete nonsense. I know that if you put forth positive energy, it often returns to you. I suppose that’s some form of spirituality, however vague it is. It’s also hard to explain why things like love and music exist, things that seem contradictory to your bodily needs, like eating. When you fall in love, you don’t wanna eat?why is that? Shouldn’t you always wanna eat if you’re just a little mammal?”
It’s obvious that Oberst is a seeker, not afraid to ask the big questions about God and death and the afterlife. He’s right, there’s a beauty to music that is almost divine. Like all good rock albums, there are moments of grace on I’m Wide Awake, where the music transports you in a way that few other things can. For me at least, that’s further proof that this life is not complete nonsense.