This is the album that Bright Eyes was bound to make sooner or later. Call it his Love Below. Call it his Trans. Call it his Zaireeka, even, if you must. Whatever you choose to label it, it’s the self-indulgent record that Conor Oberst had to get out of his system at some point or another. It doesn’t sound like any of the albums above, if you’re worried that that’s what I’m getting at. Rather, it’s the album that sounded fascinating in theory and even had potential to be really awesome and revolutionary. But due to its very nature of being uncharacteristic and about two songs too long, it’s doomed not to become a classic.
Billed as Oberst’s “electronic” album, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the yin to I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning‘s yang, is pretty good. I want to make that straight. There are six truly amazing songs, four pretty good ones, and then two that should have been left off altogether. Blame it on prolific songwriting or blame it on Winona. But Digital Ash just feels a little forced in some places. The opening hum of “Time Code” is dreadfully pretentious and boring, featuring lyrics about swallowing clocks and seeing God. And the other song with “time” in the title, “Arc of Time,” sounds awkward, as Oberst sings lyrics about time and technology over a stutter-step beat that just shouldn’t have happened. If these two songs were released as a tour seven-inch or something, it might have been more forgivable. But here, they don’t seem to fit in.
The rest of Digital Ash, however, is quite listenable and enjoyable, at that. “Gold Mine Gutted” is reminiscent of the collaboration that Bright Eyes recorded with the Album Leaf, as Oberst sings over angelic melodies and crackling beats. Later on, Oberst plays goth crooner in “Devil in the Details” and “Down in a Rabbit Hole,” a song that should have been on The Cure’s last album. The first single, the Jimmy Tamborello produced “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” is every bit as joyous and fun as any of the Postal Service’s singles. And “I Believe in Symmetry” even borrows a melody from Nena’s “99 Luftballoons.”
The latter half of the record has fewer mis-steps than the first. And, moreover, it rocks out more. Take the Spoon-ish “Ship in a Bottle,” or the fuzzy “Light Pollution.” Even in Desaparecidos, Oberst never pulled off a rock song that well before. “Theme from Piñata” utilizes Spanish rhythms. But the epic “Easy/Lucky/Free” is the song that’s bound to end up on mix tapes, best-ofs and year-end lists.
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn could have ended up a disaster if it wasn’t done right. And as it is, it’s far from perfect. Rather than a cohesive whole, it’s a fun mixture of would-be singles, half of which rank up with the best of Oberst’s material. And if that’s good enough for Bright Eyes, then it’s good enough for me.
Postal Service – Give Up
The Cure – Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.