Conor Oberst's decampment from Omaha to New York City placed him in the midst of a bustling scene filled with likeminded people -- young, liberal, and feeling politically disenfranchised. Although he's been dating Winona and singing about parties at actors' lofts, the move hasn't gone to his head: He's still a Midwestern manchild, only now he's lost in the big city instead of the Nebraska plains. His world hasn't shifted eastward as much as it has expanded, so much so that it took not one, but two Bright Eyes albums to capture it.
I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, the more familiar and popular of the two, isn't too far removed from Oberst's previous albums, although it adopts a jangly, C&W-informed sound reminiscent spiritually, if not sonically, of 1960s folk rock. The emphasis on politics is altogether appropriate, especially filtered through Oberst's first-person perspective.
Because he cannot write from any other point of view than his own, every event in Oberst's life becomes an opportunity for self-scrutiny. "Lua" chronicles a drunken postparty hook-up through its small moments and next-morning regrets, and on "Train Under Water," he frets about getting lost in Brooklyn. And yet, for all its introspection, Wide Awake is perhaps Oberst's most extroverted album, evoking a larger world full of pain and confusion greater than his own.
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn sounds atrocious by comparison. It's a Postal Service album gone horribly awry, pairing Oberst's distinctive vocals with laptop-generated beats by longtime Bright Eyes collaborator Mike Mogis (under the name Digital Audio Engine) and Post-man Jimmy Tamborello. The darkly claustrophobic production and antiseptic beats of songs such as "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" and "Light Pollution" change the natural cadence of Oberst's phrasing, forcing him to draw out some lines while nervously condensing others. As a result, he sounds slightly drunken and careless, not comfortable or confident. A natural bandleader, Oberst is used to controlling the music, but on Digital Ash, the choppy rhythms control him.
Furthermore, this awkward new sound obscures his vision of a world beyond himself. Every song on Digital Ash sounds hopelessly self-absorbed. On "Hit the Switch," he confesses, "I'm completely alone/At a table of friends/I feel nothing for them/I feel nothing!" But Oberst in fact does feel something, as Wide Awake ably proves. Perhaps it's time to try a new city.
Grades: Wide Awake: B+;Digital Ash: C-