It could certainly be deemed a dismal omen that Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, who at age 22 released what is now regarded as one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of a generation -- Lifted, on Omaha's Saddle Creek label -- has followed that recording with a project that could rightly be called a modern-pop musician's version of a shock-and-awe campaign: two new records, released simultaneously.
This approach has worked before, of course, and with gratifying results: OutKast achieved overwhelming mainstream success with its double release, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The Fiery Furnaces are rumored to be attempting the same. Granted, it's difficult to ignore an artist who exhibits as much raw talent at such a tender age as Oberst, but in today's publicity-driven information era, it's harder still to ignore an artist who bombs the market with product. Which begs the question: What does Oberst have to hide?
To put it bluntly, neither Digital Ash nor I'm Wide Awake reaches the melodic or emotional high that Lifted danced around with such seeming ease. If not for plain novelty, it's unclear why Oberst insisted on marring his nearly unblemished track record with a less-than-genre-expanding electronic album. Because for all its soundtrack-ready loops and commercial possibility, Digital Ash comes across less as a career-reinventing move than as a mediocre Bright Eyes release, reshuffled through Pro Tools and a synthesizer. Its solitary radio-ready hit, "Take it Easy (Love Nothing)," was produced with the help of the Postal Service's very talented Jimmy Tamborello, but it rings only with boilerplate electric guitar and a heavy-handed drum machine.
A few substantial tracks stand out: "Arc of Time," complete with a club-ready time signature, will almost certainly find its way into heavy rotation on dance floors here and abroad. And "I Believe in Symmetry" has already been amusing critics, at least: Its melody wittingly mimics Nina Hagen's "99 Red Balloons."
If you're planning to buy only one of these albums, though, I'm Wide Awake is the obvious choice. But let's be clear: On a rising scale of one to 10, Lifted was nearly perfect -- an easy 9.9. I'm Wide Awake is good. Maybe even great. But still, it rates only an 8.0; maybe a 8.5 at best.
Nonetheless, Oberst is a maturing, and even political, figure on these mostly country-tinged tracks like "Old Soul Song," a fantastic reminiscence of the recent protests in Manhattan, where Oberst relocated two years ago from his native Nebraska. Even better is "Land Locked Blues," a tear-jerking duet with Emmylou Harris during which Oberst wonders again about war, and capitalism, and other concerns that reinforce his child-prodigy persona: gravely serious, and wise well beyond his years.
Probably, Oberst's double release was less a publicity stunt than it was an encoded message to himself; like most 25-year-olds, he is no doubt scared, confused and growing into his adult self, all at once. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Oberst even joked about the possibility of becoming a film actor, of all things. Whether that's a bad omen or good, I'll leave for you to decide.