On Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Bright Eyes’ guilty-pleasure sidekick to the public-radio earnestness of the simultaneously released I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, singer-songwriter Conor Oberst and his musicians exchange folk instruments for crude-sounding electronic ones, and, like fellow Nebraskans the Faint, re-create ’80s synth-pop. The experiment makes a certain amount of sense. Oberst’s pasty, blood-drained voice has always sounded as if he spent his high school years digesting Depeche Mode albums, and he’s long shown interest in rhythm. He resigns himself to the apocalypse to the electro-swoon of ”Easy/Lucky/Free,” mocks the idea of heavenly salvation in the gently padding ”Arc of Time,” and sprinkles other songs with fleeting techno-pop hooks. But Oberst’s tunes are too lumpy to accommodate the smoothness demanded of synth-pop, and the cumulative effect is often dreary.
As in the past, Oberst’s words swoop in and salvage his mistakes. Buried within these typically rambling songs are many well-turned lines, like ”Now my heart needs a polygraph.” He even makes a squishy rhyme like ”I wish I had a parachute because I’m falling fast for you/I can see the ground approaching, but I’m not sure what to do” sound valid. But in a sign that doesn’t bode well, Oberst is also writing too many songs — here, and on Awake — about being wasted from drinking and clubbing, seemingly inspired by his recent relocation from Omaha to New York City. It’s one thing to aspire to literary loftiness; resorting to its self-destructive stereotypes is another. We’ve already read that story too many times.