The seventies were the birth of instantly disposable modern popular culture. I know most people would say that it was the sixties or even the fifties that invented modern pop culture — but I’m talking about the particular strain of pop culture that’s destined for nostalgia within five years. The fifties and sixties gave us the pop culture base for which the seventies could expand. Five years into the new century we already have a television show called “Remember The Nineties?”
The seventies were also the launching point of the sensitive singer songwriter. In the seventies, artists like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne took the earlier work of artists like Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake and expanded and ran with it.
People still listen to Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen but does anybody ever listen to Jackson Browne any more? Apparently there’s still a few.
Bright Eyes’ Connor Oberst, for one.
His 2002 album “Lifted-Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground” was something like extreme sensitive singer songwriter material. He took angst to new levels, while at the same time trying to escape the “emo rock” label he had been tagged with while playing with his first band, Commander Venus.
That disc launched him onto the larger pop culture radar, garnering high critical praise and selling out shows.
Earlier in 2005, Bright Eyes, which is essentially Connor Oberst and a rotating line-up of band members, launched two records simultaneously: “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn” and “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.”
While “Digital Ash” is mostly electronica music for another website to discuss, "Wide Awake" is the rural, countrified side of Bright Eyes. In preparation, he visited Nashville and enlisted the help of no less a country icon than Emmylou Harris herself. She does backing vocals on 3 of the tracks here.
Oberst hails from Omaha, Nebraska, whose music scene has produced other notable acts such as Cursive. Omaha is also where Oberst launched the fiercely independent Saddle Creek record label which released Wide Awake.
But since hitting the big time with “Lifted,” Oberst has moved to New York City and “Wide Awake” is replete with Big Apple references. He’s also toned down the angst a few notches and the result is a cohesive, highly listenable record that still captures the intensity of his best vocal work.
The album starts off with its worst moment – an awkward spoken-word tale of a woman on an ill-fated airplane. Then, towards the end of the story, a percussive acoustic guitar starts up and he salvages “At the Bottom of Everything” with great lines like:
“While my mother waters plants,
My father loads his guns.
He says death will give us back to God.”
Oberst has stated in interviews that, unlike ‘Lifted’, which features lavish, if often low-tech production and a wide variety of instrumentation, he wanted “Wide Awake” to be a more stripped down sound – like seventies folk rock records. He even mentions Jackson Browne in one interview.
While there’s an occasional Calexico-like horn flourish here and there, it’s mostly acoustic and pedal steel guitars, harmonica, piano, and drums driving the songs.
The guest list is impressive; along with Emmylou, “Wide Awake” features Norah Jones collaborator Jesse Harris doing the acoustic guitars. He also gets help from Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel, Matt Magnin of Cursive, and vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.
The sound is straightforward folk rock and even veers into alt country here and there. But the real attraction is Oberst’s writing and delivery.
Granted, when you toss this much imagery and this many metaphors out, not all of them are going to work. There are moments when the lyrics come across as kind of trite, even whiny, but those are overshadowed by the better lines and melodies that fill this CD.
Bright Eyes has, of course, been compared with Bob Dylan and, like Dylan, his best work has a sarcastic edge to it. Whether he’s taking on personal demons, religious or cultural excess, or current political trends, he’s capable of displaying a remarkable awareness and cutting through the bullshit with razor sharp wit.
Take the album’s closer, "Road to Joy," from which the title is lifted. Over a march-like cadence, Oberst intones:
“So when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing,
It’s best to join the side thats gonna win.
No one’s sure how all of this got started,
But we’re gonna make ’em Goddamn certain how it’s gonna end.”
While that’s not exactly Bob Dylan, it’s pretty sharp stuff from a middle class kid from the Midwest. If he keeps producing work of this quality, he may one day merit those kind of comparisons.