For the casual listener, it would be far too easy to label Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes as depressing. For all his desolation, his music indicates that he’s a guy on the verge of being happy. Unlike Elliott Smith, who almost always seemed ready to breakdown, Oberst has continually sought salvation. Whether through music, love or life, his goal is to be lifted.
With Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst tackles his most morbid topic to date,death, and comes away with one of the most beautiful records he’s ever created. He mixes in lines like “to the deepest part/of the human heart/the fear of death expands” with hopeful lines like “we will soon be born again” all in the same song, and it works because everything is backed by a gorgeous new sound.
With the help of multi-instrumentalist/producer Mike Mogis, Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Jimmy Tamborello (Postal Service, Dntel), Bright Eyes concocts a magical and melodic sound that draws from the increasingly mainstream electronic movement along with spacey garage-rock.
Having one of the great lyricists of our generation backed by music that is almost as eye-catching as his words is something all Bright Eyes fans have been waiting for. While this may not be his masterpiece or even in his arena (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning might fit that description), the songs here gel quite nicely and produce some of his best work yet.
The previously quoted “Arc of Time” is a meditation on death and the hope that religion provides, as well as a philosophical look at the idea of cloning or digitally re-creating ourselves (hence the title of the album). Lyrically Oberst has continued to improve, and on “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” (the first single from the record), he reaches a lyrical and musical peak. As Tamborello programs pretty little bells and whistles with a miniature guitar riff, the song soars over lines like “if you stay too long in my memory/I will trap you in a song tied to a melody/And I’ll keep you there so you can’t bother me.”
The album moves into “Hit the Switch,” which is a classic Bright Eyes visionary song. He describes the beauty he sees in a girl quite disturbingly, “Each morning she wakes with a dream to describe/Something lovely that bloomed in her beautiful mind. I say ‘I’ll trade you one, for two nightmares of mine/I have some where I die/I have some where we all die.'”
All his musings on life end with the final track, “Easy/Lucky/Free” which is among Bright Eyes’ greatest tracks. He punctuates a tuneful ballad about the way in which death affects the world with the line “Don’t you weep (don’t you weep for them)/There is nothing as lucky, as easy, or free.”
Death becomes yet another way in which we can be “lifted.” See – I told you it wasn’t all depressing.