Conor Oberst gets due credit for his literate lyrics, cut-vein performing style, and indie business acumen, but his greatest talent may be knowing his limits. Like a lot of emo-affiliated musicians, Oberst has the will to speak his mind, but lacks the knack for consistently converting those impulses into hummable music. Words come easy; melodies stall. Left alone with an acoustic guitar, Oberst tends to fall back on a trilling, nasal vocal cadence and waltz-ready chord progressions. If it weren't for his dramatic orchestrations–which get an assist from engineer Mike Mogis–the sketchy confessionals of Oberst's folk collective Bright Eyes likely wouldn't be earning comparisons to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
Of the two new, simultaneously released Bright Eyes albums, the country-leaning I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning sounds superficially plainer and more obviously hookless. But Oberst sequences the record smartly, beginning with "At The Bottom Of Everything," which moves from a barely audible spoken-word intro to a brightly skipping, mandolin-propped sing-along. Throughout the record, he alternates songs as spare as "Lua" and as rich as "Another Travelin' Song," before closing with the exultantly rocking "Road To Joy." Along the way, guest vocals by Emmylou Harris and My Morning Jacket's Jim James vary the tone, and restrained use of pianos, horns, and pedal steel deepen the texture.
Oberst threads his lyrics' journalistic immediacy through the careful arrangements, and the process of holding back helps him find a few tunes. The stately, gorgeous "We Are Nowhere And It's Now" and "Old Soul Song" are as sophisticated and moving as the best work by his singer-songwriter idols. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is a culmination of Bright Eyes' decade-long habit of reviving folk-rock conventions and social engagement for a generation raised on the celebratory egomania of rap and reality television.
In its way, the companion record Digital Ash In A Digital Urn is even more exciting. Just as Ryan Adams met the challenge of The Strokes and Interpol by writing his own '80s post-punk record, Oberst responds to The Postal Service's popularity by taking a stab at neo-techno-pop, with a validating guest appearance by Jimmy Tamborello. Oberst's "anything you can do" move works better than Adams', because Digital Ash seems more personal, with all the superfluous noise and earnest moaning that makes a Bright Eyes record. And since Digital Ash tries out new sounds, Oberst is forced to change his routine to meet the shifting instrumentation.
The results can be heard immediately on the structureless, atmospheric opener "Time Code"; even songs that rely on Oberst's standard singsong, like "Arc Of Time" and "Down In A Rabbit Hole," wander off in odd directions, following the beat more than the bruised lyrics. The escalating clatter of "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" and the supple coursing of the album-closer "Easy/Lucky/Free" mark a remarkable progression from Oberst's teen troubadour origins. At 24, most professional musicians are making their first awkward recordings. Oberst is mastering new forms and preparing to beat the world.