Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bright Eyes :: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

As 2005 was just waking up, the Omaha based Bright Eyes simultaneously released two albums: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. This isn’t a double album with a collection of twenty or so songs, but two unique pieces that are inextricable from one another. Awake is a tight, well focused analog folk record and Ash is a more experimental digital and electric album. The connections between the albums go much deeper than the realization that the same beach blanket lyric is in ‘First Day of My Life’ and ‘Take it Easy (Love Nothing).’ The records are compliments and foils, one not complete without its opposite.

The most intriguing thing about Bright Eyes has always been the lyrical mastery of self-reference, supernatural self-awareness, self-deprecation and even self-obsession. Through the prism that is Conor Oberst, a listener who pays close attention to the words will better understand the full spectrum of his human experience. This ranges from small feelings of emotional disparity in relationships to the overwhelming distress about the purpose of existence.

One of the most fascinating things about Bright Eyes is the progression throughout the albums of the “narrator’s” character and his interactions with fictitious loves, including the all too real Laura. It seems as if, since Conor began writing, he began telling a story and each album is another chapter. There is one theme that is a constant undercurrent behind Conor’s pen. In the song ‘Milk Thistle’ from his first solo record, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Mr. Oberst wrote the line, “I keep death on my mind like a heavy crown.”

To get a better understanding of these two albums, it’s important to look at their predecessor: Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. The final song, after an album’s worth of examination of himself, his relationships, his world and his lack of faith, Conor seems to sum everything up in ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved).’ At first, one might think this is just one of his ‘punch-line’ songs, filled with clever observations and criticism, similar to ‘The Big Picture,’ ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ and ‘Road to Joy.’ However, it all comes together with the final verse as one realizes that the whole song is a list of reasons why Conor took far too many pills and downed it with whiskey.

Awake and Ash are albums that are obsessed with and woven together around Conor’s conflicting and confused notions of life and death. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is the woe begotten hymnal of vitality. It contrasts the light and hope of the rising sun with the darkness of a cynical poet/social commentator and the somber tone of sad guitars, moaning lap steel, twinkling mandolin and patient piano. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is the easygoing jamboree of death. Night and the omnipresence of the eternal end are met with upbeat guitar riffs, dancy digital melodies and a full string section that enlightens acceptance and, dare it be said, faith.

As the albums travel below the surface, it becomes clear that neither is definitively about life or death, sorrow or joy, but about being lost between the two. The two records serve to exemplify Conor’s most potent statement, “There is no truth. There is only you and what you make the truth,” from Lifted’s ‘Don’t Know When, But a Day is Gonna Come.’ Nothing is ever quite definitive or conclusive, it’s all about him learning how to deal with it. Conor embarks on a preternaturally self-conscious journey of doubt, drug abuse, sexual exploitations and constant thoughts of the apocalypse and suicide provoked by a longing to understand those two abstract concepts: waking and turning into ash.


I had some conflicted feelings about decoding Bright Eyes albums like this. On one hand there are so many personal details exposed that I’m assuming are about their author. Then, I thought that it doesn’t really matter, because as he says in “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” “I do not read the reviews. No, I am not singing for you.” A big part of me still wanted to leave the songs alone, so that they can be explored by whoever listens to them in their own way and at their own pace. So, I recommend listening to it first…several times, and then checking back here when you want to learn more.


The cover of Awake is a hand quilted piece of art created by a fan. It depicts an avenue of brownstones in the city that is the main setting for the album, New York, New York. The same fan first submitted work that became the video for ‘Bowl of Oranges’ from Lifted and eventually also crafted the video for ‘At the Bottom of Everything.’

One of the most publicized parts of the album was that it features guest vocalists. Jim James of My Morning Jacket sings on ‘At the Bottom of Everything.’ Folk singer, songwriter Emmylou Harris’ harmonies trace around Conor’s in ‘We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,’ ‘Another Travelin’ Song’ and ‘Landlocked Blues.’

Awake closely resembles Lifted in many ways. The songs follow a similar structure and narrative arc, the sound of both is folksier, the lyrics carry the same mood. However, Awake is a much tighter and controlled album. There are less songs, the lyrics are less invasive, the arrangements are stripped down. The key to the album is subtlety, which is probably what makes it the most well known and well regarded Bright Eyes album.

Throughout the record, there are references to waking up and being born. They are synonymous symbols that can sometimes be easily missed. They represent little epiphanies that give the sorrowful songs their hope.


Bright Eyes albums have always begun with an audio collage or field recordings or something that isn’t music. Conor and Mike Mogis, another Bright Eyes ‘member,’ devised this tactic in order to “ward off casual listeners.” On this album, Conor has honed the art, creating something that I’ll bet he wondered why he didn’t think of sooner. Conor has always fancied himself a storyteller and ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ starts with a story. There’s an immediate honesty to the album as it begins with Conor slurping while taking a sip of water, stuttering and throwing his voice into the corners of the room when he turns from the microphone.

The tale is about a plane crash, but it serves a much more significant thematic purpose of subtly touching on and tying together the album’s most important ideas. There’s the possible romantic tension between the woman who can’t talk to the man. Possible commentary on prototypical American ignorance as the woman can’t pronounce the name of a suffering third world country. And as the plane begins to hurtle into the ocean, the man wishes the woman a happy birthday, immediately setting up the juxtaposition between life and death.

Like the spoken prologue before it, the song serves the purpose of setting the stage for the rest of the story to unfold. Conor introduces us to the modern world as he sees it, full of attachments to technologies, the death penalty, the high cost of health care, damning religions, and the importance society places on property and privilege.

The first chorus of the song is his critique of the suburban American family as gun toting, religious fanatics. Again the main theme is present when the mother gives life to the plants by watering them and the father eerily loads his gun. The chorus’ vocal harmonies are the wallowing echoes of My Morning Jacket singer, Jim James.

Many times live in concert, Conor makes a replacement for the line “we must hang up in the belfry where the bats and moonlight laugh” with “we must hole up in the bunker where the dying soldier laughs.” The former line doesn’t really make any kind of commentary and therefore doesn’t suit the rest of the song. The replacement mentions the one thing the song was missing and a huge element of the album, war.

Our hero wakes for the first time in the story, with one of the most provoking and contradictorily beautiful statements made on the album. Conor, the emperor of sorrow, states that he is happy. The source, “I’m happy just because I’ve found out I am really no one.”

A testament to Awake’s subtlety is the fact that suicide is never overtly mentioned, but can only be picked up on through allusions to other albums and songs. ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ kicks in where ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves’ left off. Conor makes similar depressing observations about the world around him and instead of the tune ending by closing his eyes forever, he awakens with acceptance.

Conor revisits his angst from Lifted, jovially poking fun at himself, “If you swear that there’s no truth and who cares, how come you say it like you’re right?” If there is no truth, then the statement, “there is no truth” can’t be true.

The plot of the story begins as Conor returns home from somewhere, probably touring, and discovers that it has changed. Another one of his constant themes is that missing feeling of belonging in a place that should be his home. It’s also in the songs ‘Bowl of Oranges’ from Lifted and ‘Tourist Trap’ from Four Winds.

Conor’s female ‘friend’ tells him that he’s going to drink himself to death. It’s a warning that alludes to the suicide attempt, as is one of the most evocative images in the album, the yellow bird. It comes from a Simon Joyner song, 'Came a Yellow Bird.' Simon is also a native to Omaha and a large influence on Conor. The two artists collaborated on a cover of Simon’s ‘Burn Rubber’ which appeared on the Take it Easy (Love Nothing) single. In ‘Came a Yellow Bird,’ every time the narrator wished to die an arrow was released and unintentionally hit a yellow bird flying by.

Conor’s friend asks him, “Did you forget your yellow bird? How could you forget your yellow bird?” It’s an awfully poetic way of telling him that what he did hurt her badly.
The song ends as she pins onto Conor’s shirt a “small silver wreath,” another strongly compelling image. She tells him that it will bring him love. During live performances, Conor will change the last line from “I don’t know if it’s true, but I keep it for good luck,” to “Now, I know that’s not true, but I keep it for good luck.”


Every great album needs a song of revolution. Particularly great folk albums, as they are traditionally known for political commentary.

We don’t know why these people are rioting, it could be an anti-war rally or it could be something else. We just know that "They went wild." Conor seems to be as uncertain as us. He cleverly writes, “on the way home I held your camera like a bible, just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth.” He hopes that the camera they took pictures of the riot with will explain why it happened, just like on a larger scale he wished the bible could explain why anything happens.

As usual, we’re not given anything conclusive. Conor leaves us with another strongly evocative and juxtaposing image: “And just when I get so lonesome I can’t speak, I see some flowers on a hillside, like a wall of new TVs.”


‘Lua’ could be the most romantic anti-love song ever written. Drenched in guilt, it tells the story of an emotionless seduction with repeated variations of the line “What is simple in the moonlight by the morning never is.” It’s a similar theme as ‘Lover I Don’t Have to Love’ from Lifted, but much, much more poetic.

The song amazingly manages to make sharing a flask on a train heartbreakingly romantic. The skinny girl he takes to the party frequently sneaks off to the bathroom and Conor subtlety lets us know why with the line, “It takes one to know one, kid. I think you got it bad.” Cocaine is directly referenced in several places on Ash, like ‘Gold Mine Gutted’ and ‘Down a Rabbit Hole.’

Conor explains his affliction: “I’m not sure what the trouble was that started all of this. The reasons all have run away, but the feeling never did.” On Ash, Conor seems to have pinpointed what caused the trouble in ‘Take it Easy (Love Nothing).’ A sexual encounter in which a girl broke his heart with a note on a cartoon cat pad.


Quite a poetic break up song. Conor’s immense sense of guilt is framed in the first line, where he imagines her tears to be herself, trapped in raindrops and falling to her death. Going along with the theme of ‘no truth,’ Conor’s indecisive mind is also indefinite, as unpredictable as the weather. “If I could tame all of my desires, wait out the weather that howls in my brain, because it seems that it’s always changing, the wind’s indecision, the sorrowful rain.”


The weather line from ‘Train Under Water’ helps clarify the beach blanket verses from both ‘First Day of My Life’ and ‘Take it Easy.’ The weather is symbolic of Conor’s unpredictable feelings in his relationships. In ‘Take it Easy,’ the line is “Now they’re spreading out the blankets on the beach. That weatherman’s a liar he said it’d be raining.” Conor’s almost angry at the weatherman, as if he missed out on a good beach day because he was expecting rain. In ‘First Day of My Life,’ the line is “I went out in the rain, suddenly everything changed. They’re spreading blankets on the beach.” There’s surprise and joy about the fact that people are spreading blankets despite a rainy day. Both of these lines are metaphors for Conor's relationships.

Besides being a standout track for its poetic sweetness, the song is important to the album, because of the motifs of birth and waking up. In the first verse, Conor feels like he is reborn, because, as he says “I realized that I need you and I wondered if I could come home.” In the second verse, his significant other drives all night to meet him and says she feels like she just woke up to realize the same thing.

‘First Day of My Life’ is surmised in the line “I’d rather be working for a paycheck than waiting to win the lottery.” On Lifted in ‘Waste of Paint,’ Conor compares love to lottery tickets, “Will my number come up eventually like love's some kind of lottery where you scratch and see what's underneath? It's: sorry. Just one cherry. Or play again. Get lucky.” There’s a lot of animosity in his voice for how hard it is to win such a lottery and how bad he’s been longing for it. Now, he uses the symbol of the lottery differently. The song is about how relationships take work and how it’s worth it.
‘Another Travelin’ Song’ is one of the more joyous romps on the album. Just like the absence of a home in ‘We Are Nowhere and it’s Now,’ traveling is also a big theme for Conor. In this song, it is the physical manifestation of his indecisiveness. He demonstrates it nicely with lines like “I’m not surprised but I never feel quite prepared” and “I’ll fight like hell to hide that I’ve given up.”

One can gather that the end of the world is something that Conor dreams about a lot. In ‘Hit the Switch’ on Ash, he wants to trade a girl her dream for two of his nightmares, saying “I have some where I die, I have some where we all die.” In this song, Conor outlines a creepy dream of Armageddon at a desert, where there’s “a prostituted child touching an old man in a fast food crowd” and a sinking ship. The dream ends like ‘Old Soul Song’ begins. Instead of the dreary and quiet way “an old soul song comes on the alarm clock radio,” this time “I awoke to my alarm clock, it was a pop song, it was playing loud.”


One of the most lyrically loaded laments on the record, about two people parting ways, with the refrain “You walk that way and I’ll walk this way.”

Conor has an affinity for clouds and the future. In ‘The Big Picture’ he says, “If you want to see the future, go and stare into a cloud.” The reference could be of the perception that heaven is in the clouds. In ‘The Devil in the Details’ he writes, “I put the past into the ground. I saw the future as a cloud.” In ‘Land Locked Blues’ he tells us that “The future hangs over our heads and it moves with each current event.” This time the clouds are stormy, conjuring up references to Conor’s favorite subject, the end of the world.

The song is multilayered, so that it seems like a simple break up song, but is littered with political and philosophical touches that transform it into a tune about pacifism. The song marries the two themes of relationships and politics under the idea of non-confrontation, to show the temporality of both. Conor sings, “We made love on the living room floor with the noise in the background from a televised war. And in that deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say, ‘If we walk away, they’ll walk away.’”

The girl in the song is the album’s first and only glimpse of Laura. On Lifted she got a whole song donated to her called ‘Laura Laurent.’ Here she is the force that tries to keep Conor from his indecision, from his wanderlust. She lovingly tells him “I dreamed you were carried away on the crest of a wave. Baby, don’t go away. Come here.”

It’s not clear if all the female characters on the album are Laura or if Conor just has a multitude of sexual encounters. On the album Fevers and Mirrors, Conor made up a love named ‘Arienette’ who appears all over the place. She’s an idealized, elusive and confusing character as even though Conor admits that she’s fictitious, he can’t seem to decide if she’s real or not. Laura is a much more realistic character and less of a romantic ideal, as Conor is constantly breaking her heart in songs.

Conor Oberst dated the solo artist and Azure Ray musician, Maria Taylor, and she could serve as the framework for the fictitious Laura. Maria contributed backing vocals to this album as well, on ‘Old Soul Song’ and ‘Poison Oak,’ as she has on many other Bright Eyes recordings. An interesting note is also that both backing vocalists, Emmylou Harris she and Maria Taylor are from Birmingham, Alabama.


‘Poison Oak’ is probably the most personal song on the record. The lyrics are so sweetly written that it could seem like it’s a love song. However, with the line “In polaroids you were dressed in woman’s clothes. Were you made ashamed? Why’d you lock them in a drawer?” one realizes that he’s addressing a guy. During a live performance, Conor said that he wrote the song about his cousin Ian, who he said was his “best friend in the whole world.”

Bright Eyes lyrics are always full of images of childhood euphoria. This song in particular begins with tin can telephones and the weight of a little boy saying that he isn’t afraid to die. It continues to chronicle that child’s life and his race to the end of it, at his own hand.

With the lines about his friend taking off to Mexico, one could think that Conor’s clothes “are soaking wet from your brother’s tears,” because his friend ran away. In ‘Land Locked Blues’ Conor sings a line that shows he considers death an escape, “You’ll be free child once you have died.” With this in mind, when Conor says “I’m glad you got away, but I’m still stuck out here,” the ‘getting away’ is death.

The point of the song comes when Conor sings, “You’re the yellow bird that I’ve been waiting for.” Keeping in mind Simon Joyner’s ‘Came a Yellow Bird,’ this line poetically translates to the fact that Conor’s friend has become his reason to keep living. Conor has perhaps felt what he has done to others, like the girl in ‘We Are Nowhere and It’s Now.’ Referencing himself and the fact that he considers his writing to be a ‘waste of paint,’ he sings, “Let the poets cry themselves to sleep. All their tearful words will turn back into steam.”

Every once in a while Conor will address sorrow and its roll in his music. In ‘Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh’ on Fevers and Mirrors, he sings about “the pleasure that my sadness brings.” Hints like this also show a listener how to approach his music, as catharsis. ‘Poison Oak’ ends with one of the most self-defining lyrics in the Bright Eyes catalog, “The sound of loneliness makes me happier.”

The guitar melody for 'Road to Joy' is a variation of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' and the title is a clever pun that incorporates one of the album's themes.

The first line says it all, “The sun came up with no conclusions.” The story doesn't have a clear resolution, as life usually doesn't. This song mirrors ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ with its quick and clever punch-lines, almost as if Conor’s hinting that he’s ending right where he began.

The tune’s sound is equally upbeat and even gets angry at times. At the end of many Bright Eyes shows since 2005, the set would end with a riotous explosion of ‘Road to Joy.’ Conor would take pages from the grunge playbook, smashing his guitar and proceeding to destroy the rest of the equipment.

Throughout the album, Conor references war, but never directly mentions the Iraq war, which was in its height at the time the album came out. The references are intentionally ambiguous so that they can be applied to other kinds of ‘wars.’ Conor explains how he feels about his country with, “So, when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing, it’s best to join the side that’s gonna win. And no one’s sure how all of this got started, but we’re going to make them God damn certain how it’s gonna end!” Much as he has no control over the countries politics, he has no control over when his life ends and he just has to live.

Conor’s shaky, sorrow laden, atonal singing voice is usually the first barrier that listeners have to come to terms with in order to enjoy the music fully. Conor addresses this attribute with the last lines on the album, “I could have been a famous singer if I had someone else's voice, but failure's always sounded better. Let's fuck it up boys, make some noise!”

// Omaha, NE //
// Released on Saddle Creek //
// January, 2005 //
// Recorded and Engineered by Mike Mogis "one freezing week in February of 2004" at Presto! in Lincoln, NE //
// Mastered by Doug Van Sloun at Studio B in Omaha//