This is the record we’ve all been waiting for Bright Eyes to record. Up to now, every record has been monumental, but perhaps too monumental. Where 60 minutes would have sufficed, Conor Oberst went for 75. And when eleven songs were plenty, he’d push it up to 13. It’s an admirable flaw, erring on the side of giving too much rather than keeping it all to himself. But on his latest effort, he’s allowed himself to press the “stop” button at just the right time. And for that, we’re given I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the finest 45 minute run of Oberst’s career.
The Oberst we hear on Morning falls somewhere between the shy, doe-eyed kid who once fronted Commander Venus and the outspoken (and oft-stereotyped) grown-up version of the Nebraskan. He’s nowhere near as naïve as that first young buck, and yet he’s not as cynical or melodramatic as the latter. Our hero is every bit as articulate and eloquent as before, but he doesn’t force it. And this time around, he gets straight to the point, not allowing a song to stretch past six minutes, save for the centerpiece, “Train Under Water,” just four seconds past the mark.
On Morning, Oberst combines the intimate with the detached, melding personal agony with interesting character sketches, a unique talent that’s not easy to balance without sacrificing creativity for intimacy, and vice-versa. From the beginning, he plays the storyteller, spouting an anecdote about a plummeting airplane from his quivery vocal chords. But as the doomed passengers make their final descent, a surprisingly upbeat tune begins, sounding like a cross between My Morning Jacket (thanks to backup vocals by Jim James) and Neutral Milk Hotel. Oberst’s political conscience rears its head in this song as he sings of curing current social ills: “We must take all the medicines too expensive to sell/We must set fire to the preacher who is promising us Hell.” But by the end of the second verse, Conor returns to the characters in his opening story, chanting elatedly, “And it was a wonderful, wonderful splash.”
But there are less joyous moments as well. The first single, “Lua,” is among Bright Eyes’ most heartbreaking tunes, and, curiously, quietest, leading one to question its viability as radio single. In this song, Oberst sings of troubled lovers, but the most tear-jerking moment comes when he sings “we might die from medication, but we sure killed all the pain.”
As usual, Oberst is joined by longtime contributor Mike Mogis, who provides some beautiful pedal steel harmonies on “Old Soul Song” and “Train Under Water.” Other guests on this collection include members of The Faint, Now It’s Overhead, Azure Ray and Rilo Kiley, and as you may have heard, Emmylou Harris, who provides backup vocals on a couple songs, among them the graceful, waltzing “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” and “Another Travelin’ Song,” a rip-roaring hootenanny of a honky-tonk. Though the album displays a wide range of emotions, we’re given a happy ending on “Road to Joy,” a song that nicks the melody from “Ode to Joy,” which I hear Oberst uses as his cell phone ringtone.
For the last seven years, Bright Eyes has been synonymous with beautiful, epic lo-fi folk-rock masterpieces. However, Conor Oberst had yet to write a perfect album. It looks like he may have done it this time around, and it’s no surprise to anyone. We knew he had it in him all the time.
Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
The Elected – Me First
My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves
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.