I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
An Auteur Paints His First Masterpiece
The new millennium's first New Dylan, Conor Oberst has a whiny voice and a penchant for piling up run-on sentences. (The title of his 2002 breakthrough, Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, is indicative.) A proud antisinger, he sometimes shouts when he's run out of more artful moves. He can sound royally pissed off whether provoked or not. Like others of his generation, he throws spectacular me-so-wounded tantrums that at times seem overly dramatic.
Amazingly, on this staggering set of songs, these traits aren't as grating as you'd think—they snap Oberst's accounts of betrayal and duplicity into a kind of emo high drama. The Nebraska native, who goes by the nom de rock Bright Eyes, started recording at age fourteen. With this record, made when he was twenty-two, he surrounds the guitar-and-voice screeds that populated earlier albums with strikingly varied accompaniments. These defy genre classification—tunes that tell of existential crisis, like "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," are cradled by gentle meditating mandolin and piano, the love child of upbeat country and slouchy slacker rock.
The set suggests that Oberst has come to recognize the limits of ranting and raving. Always attentive to (some would say "obsessed" with) his words, Oberst for the first time here seems just as interested in finding musical ways to enhance and expand his meanings. The stark, lovely melodies (check "At the Bottom of Everything") are augmented with swelling strings, carnival horns, and other funhouse trappings. But perhaps the best evidence of Oberst's evolution is the presence of Emmylou Harris (see p. 344) on several selections. One of the great harmony vocalists of all time, Harris smooths the edge of Oberst's voice, blunts the bitterness of his tone. Their intertwined voices send a paranoid meditation on freedom, "Landlocked Blues," into a floating, deliciously ethereal airspace. A place that sounds free.
Released: 2005, Saddle Creek
Key Tracks: "At the Bottom of Everything," "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," "Landlocked Blues," "Road to Joy"
Catalog Choice: Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Next Stop: Calexico: The Black Light
After That: Ed Harcourt: Here Be Monsters
Book Pages: 115–116
#1 from Jacob, Memphis, TN - 10/22/2008 7:12
I’m so beyond estatic that you included this breathtaking album on your list. It’s is seriously my favorite album of all-time. I’ve heard it more times than I can count, and it continues to amaze me with every listen. From the powerful poetry of the lyrics to Conor Oberst’s breathy vocals that make you feel like he’s singing directly to you, this is what I consider the perfect album.
#2 from Zach Preiksa, Houston, TX - 03/20/2009 11:54
This record blew me away: from start to finish Oberst weaves an epic and heartbreaking existential tale that only grows on you as you listen more. “Road To Joy” is one of the best songs to be made this millenium, the perfect anti-war album that will stand as a clear indication of this generation.