In another lifetime, Conor Oberst, the wide-eyed indie gamin who fronts Bright Eyes, would have made one sharp novelist. On the albums he began recording in his native Omaha in the ’90s, he reveled in a writerly love of language that was self-conscious but undeniably disarming. One of his best lyrics, ”Messenger Bird’s Song,” from 2002’s There Is No Beginning to the Story EP, was an unflinching monologue about a relationship gone as cold as yesterday’s coffee; it read like a short story.
On I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning — released simultaneously with another new Bright Eyes album, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn — Oberst retains his eye for evocative detail, whether he’s taking ”hooded-sweatshirt walks” or ”waving at the taxis/They keep turning their lights off.” In ”Lua,” he murmurs, ”I know you have a heavy heart…./So many men stronger than me have thrown their backs out trying to lift it.”
Unfortunately, Oberst crafts records rather than prose, and as a musician he’s been his own worst enemy. It’s easy to see how his Midwestern-outsider mystique, bad-haircut nonchalance, and chaotic, half-shouted story-songs became an underground antidote to the likes of the Backstreet Boys. But thanks to Oberst’s jittery yowl and stammering melodies that avoided anything approaching structure, Bright Eyes CDs, culminating in 2002’s Lifted…, grew increasingly laborious. The kid brandished his youthful self-indulgence with a little too much pride.
Judging by I’m Wide Awake, Oberst must have realized this flaw. He continues to push himself as a writer, touching on Iraq-invasion street protests (”Old Soul Song”), post-invasion anxiety (”Road to Joy”), and romantic entanglements; ”Land Locked Blues” manages to combine all three topics, albeit a little clumsily. But the ambient alt-country arrangements lend shape to his pileup of words and chords; for the first time, Oberst sounds as if he’s trying to conform his lyrics to his tunes, not the other way around.
The downside to these upgrades (especially for those longtime admirers who like his music raw) is that Oberst has never sounded so conventional. As each track begins, you can practically pinpoint the moment when the pristine mandolin solo or fragile Emmylou Harris harmony (itself a cliché at this point) will enter. In the Pogues-gone-Americana ”Another Travelin’ Song,” he even claims to work on a typewriter. (Could that possibly be true?) Yet the more cohesive, statelier arrangements suit songs that search for stability in an unstable world. Oberst still needs to sharpen his tunes — the best melody here, ”First Day of My Life,” comes dangerously close to stealing that of Bob Dylan’s ”Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” — but at least Bright Eyes, for once, go down easy, in itself an accomplishment.