In the past few years since the release of Bright Eyes’ fourth full-length album, Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground, the Bright Eyes tale has taken many unexpected twists and turns. Conor Oberst and his ever-changing line up of musical comrades appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn,” and were a prominent addition to the MTV2-televised 2003 Shortlist Awards. In October of 2004 he was invited to join Bruce Springsteen and REM on an arena tour of swing states in advance of the presidential election. His performance at those shows sealed his reputation as a creative force, able to command the attention of thousands of rock fans with, at times, just his voice and an acoustic guitar.
Over the past two years the young musician has found himself hurled from his indie rock enclave onto the world’s stage. While reaching new heights of commercial success, he was hailed by fans as the finest songwriter of his generation. But he remained, and remains, an artist unwilling to leave his hometown label for any major label’s promises.
All the while, critical acclaim has spread far and wide with Bright Eyes selling out several hugely lauded tours and finding an ever swelling and ravenous audience throughout the world. Since Lifted, Oberst has released an almost constant stream of new material for collaborative EPs, tribute albums, and charity records. He ventured into the studio with Nebraska folk-pop outfit Tilly And The Wall, co-producing their debut album Wild Like Children and then releasing it on his newly established record label, Team Love. And yet, despite all of this recording and performing, it is his songwriting that has taken unmitigated precedence.
Conor’s new songs are undeniably his finest to date. These new compositions have been rolled into two separate, cohesive records: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, which will simultaneously be released on January 24th. While a plethora of this new material was born from an early 2003 relocation to Manhattan, 2004 saw Conor’s return to Presto! Studios in Lincoln to record with long time collaborator and producer Mike Mogis.
Recording since the age of 13 and tagged “rock’s boy genius” by the music press for the past few years, these two albums provide unequivocal proof that the now 24 year-old Oberst belongs to the lineage of great American songwriters. These albums are a soundly articulated slice of modern American life rolled into two very different records. The new songs are bursting with all of the heartfelt poetry for which Bright Eyes records have earned their acclaim. The rough edges are still there — the splintering of a note held too long, the crack of the voice as it reaches slightly too far, the inadvertent thump of a thumb against a fret — but there is a glorious new level of depth and texture to the writing and delivery. Recorded back-to-back and scheduled to be released simultaneously, more out of necessity than any grand art plan, the two albums work in tandem to elucidate both sides of Conor’s recent creative output.
The first (as in, the first to be laid down on tape) is titled I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; a country-tinged mélange of Conor’s finest acoustic songs, featuring guest vocal appearances from Emmylou Harris and Jim James (My Morning Jacket).
The second album Oberst recorded, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, is a more produced, band-centric album featuring cameo appearances by Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
As has become expected of Bright Eyes recordings, the albums feature an array of talented comrades: Jesse Harris, Jason Boesel of Rilo Kiley, multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Mogis, Nick White of Tilly And The Wall, Matt Maginn of Cursive, Clay Leverett and Andy LeMaster of Now It’s Overhead, former The Good Life member Jiha Lee, Maria Taylor of Azure Ray, Clark Beachle of The Faint, Alex McMannus of The Bruces, Jake Bellows of Neva Dinova and Jimmy Tamborello of The Postal Service.