Hailing from the same home state as one Conor Oberst, I've been able to watch his career trajectory as he's gone from relatively unknown bedroom songwriter to his current indie superstar status. While I can appreciate it, his very early work has never really done a whole lot for me, but over time I've really been won over by the obvious progression in his craft and I felt that his last album (Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground) was easily his best release to date and perhaps a sign that he was really starting to show the world what he could do.
While many have gone so far as to hail him as the next Bob Dylan (a claim that I simply can't fathom yet), I also appreciate that he's not only been an artist that consistently speaks his mind, but has sold a good deal of albums through a lot of hard work and touring, as well as without the help of major radio play. It's because of all these things that I find myself disappointed by I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. Although Bright Eyes has never been one to completely go out on a limb in terms of musical styles, his newest release simply sounds so safe and even boring at times that it just doesn't stick.
Although I've never enjoyed his wild vocal histronics, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning in large part sounds like Oberst is a bit tired. I realize that the album is a dual release with the more upbeat Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, but while there's some lovely and lush instrumentation on the release, the melodies just aren't as inventive as they have been in the past. After opening with a spoken-word passage, "At The Bottom Of Everything" strums into a fairly standard acoustic guitar and mandolin plucker that manages to relegate Jim James of My Morning Jacket to unobtrusive background vocals while "We Are Nowhere And It's Now" finds Oberst shuffling through a pretty, but largely forgettable duet with Emmylou Harris. Fortunately, the end of "Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)" picks the album up out of the narcotic haze and offers a bit of well-needed life, but the release seems to slide right back with the stripped-down vocals and guitar of "Lua."
Towards the end of the release, there are several tracks that help redeem things a lot. "Another Travelin' Song" gets a bit more loose with the instrumentation as honky-tonk organs and plenty of guitars again find Harris and Oberst dueting on the great rambler. "Landlocked Blues" might very well be the best track on the entire release, stripping things back to another duet between Harris and Oberst, but whereas other tracks seem to feel a bit lost, the track shines both melodically and lyrically as subtle flourishes of other instrumentation (including a gorgeous, bright trumpet melody towards the end) really help it stand out. Oddly enough, the most upbeat track (and easily the most catchy) on the entire release finds Oberst nicking one of Beethoven's most famous melodies ("Ode To Joy" becomes "Road To Joy") The track builds with a great urgency, again bringing together the lyrics and music in a way that injects some life into the release right before it ends.
Although his last album was also hit-or-miss in terms of concepts and music, it felt more successful to me because at nearly seventy minutes it had time to be sprawling and a bit unruley while at the same time taking more chances. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning runs a fairly concise forty-five minutes long and when tracks start running into one another with very little to separate them, it tends to go in one ear and out the other. Perhaps if I hadn't heard as much of his music up to this point, the album would feel a bit more fresh, but this is the first time (like or dislike) that I've heard one of his albums where it sounds like musically the wheels are spinning a bit. While it's all produced and performed immaculately, it just feels like too many of the rough edges have been smoothed off. Because of that, it should have great cross-over appeal, but I can't help thinking it could have been a bit more.