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Pop music | ALBUM REVIEW

With all senses awakened

Conor Oberst takes stock of the political and cultural landscape with eloquence and insight in a new acoustic set from Bright Eyes.

January 09, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Bright Eyes

"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning"

(Saddle Creek)

****

As a pop critic, you sometimes spend months writing about what's new, waiting all that time for what's great. It has finally arrived.

Bright Eyes' new acoustic album is the most absorbing singer-songwriter collection since Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind" eight years ago -- and it is, in some ways, an answer to that landmark work.

In "Time," Dylan began the final chapter in his career-long portrait of a generation's dreams. The most compelling moments of Bright Eyes' new CD feel like the opening chapter of a new generation's search. Even the title conveys a sense of youthful determination and discovery: "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning."

That doesn't mean Bright Eyes -- which consists of 24-year-old Conor Oberst and whatever musicians are with him at the moment -- is deliberately tracing someone else's footsteps. Oberst is an immensely gifted songwriter with his own vision and goals.

But many listeners may see a parallel between what Oberst is doing now and what was laid down in such landmark albums as "Bringing It All Back Home" and "Blonde on Blonde" in the '60s: examining the political and cultural landscape of their times with unusual insight and eloquence.

In "I'm Wide Awake," one of two separate Bright Eyes CDs due Jan. 25 from Saddle Creek Records (the other is a rock 'n' roll album that will be reviewed later), Oberst is a man on a mission, battling with urgency against the cynicism and indifference he sees. The opening song, "At the Bottom of Everything," underscores his belief in taking a stand on issues of the day:

We must take all of the medicines too expensive now to sell.

Set fire to the preacher who is promising us hell.

Into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn't dream

We must sing, we must sing, we must sing.

Much of Dylan's most influential work in the '60s was fueled by the confidence and independence that came from being part of a generation filled with a sense of destiny. By 1997, however, Dylan was nearing 60, and the future no longer seemed unlimited. "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there," he warned in "Time Out of Mind."

Oberst has no illusions about the future. In "I'm Wide Awake," he goes between supreme confidence and a sense of helplessness, rage and compassion, sometimes placing apocalyptic visions alongside hopeful ones. In "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," he asks, "Why are you scared to dream of God, when it's salvation that you want?"

An Omaha native who now divides his time between there and New York City, Oberst has been making records since his teens and progressed fast enough to make lots of critical "best of" lists by the time of 2002's "Lifted ..." That 73-minute Bright Eyes CD was filled with so many dazzling images and rhymes you felt you were being overwhelmed. Still, there were enough flashes of brilliance to make you endure the excesses.

In "I'm Wide Awake," Oberst pares the music. The songs, about relationships and self-discovery, are still ambitious, but they are more accessible, compact and blessed with melodies that you'll find yourself humming after just a few hearings.

The arrangements are seasoned by warm folk and country textures, employing such instruments as mandolin, organ and steel guitar. Emmylou Harris, the most evocative female singer ever in country music, and My Morning Jacket's Jim James contribute backing vocals.

Purpose of the search

"ANOTHER Travelin' Song" is the album's most immediately appealing tune, aglow with the guitar-driven energy of Paul Simon's "Graceland" and the tension of a Johnny Cash train song.

There have been thousands of traveling songs, and the best are engaging because there's something universal about the theme of restlessness and adventure and the open road. In the song, Oberst goes beyond the glamour of the road to suggest that the real purpose of all the search is to find an inner comfort and identity.

"Lua" and "First Day of My Life" are looks at love from quite different points. The first is a minimalist tale of struggling against overpowering temptation. Backed by his own guitar, Oberst paints a picture so naked that his voice rarely rises above a whisper:

I got a flask inside my pocket

We can share it on the train

And if you promise to stay conscious

I will try and do the same.

We might die from medication

But we sure killed all the pain.

What was normal in the evening

By the morning seems insane.

"First Day of My Life," by contrast, is so delicate and sweet you want to wrap your arms around it, and Oberst's lean, endearing vocal captures the longing and vulnerability of every line.

Oberst, who shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and R.E.M. during the recent "Vote for Change" tour opposed to President Bush's reelection, can't go far in his music without reflecting on the anxiety of the age. There are several references to the Iraq war, some subtle and some head-on.

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