Looking back, the far-reaching and ambitious Lifted is still a great album—nearly landmark, diminished only in its tendencies to indulge in Conor Oberst’s vices; associating the rocky upswings and vibrato/falsetto with emotion divided listeners. Those who could tolerate these occasionally painful moments were rewarded with more than enough off-beat lyricism and memorable arrangements to compensate. But some could just not get over that voice—perhaps in jealousy of the effortlessly prolific writing from someone so young, so naïve and world-weary all at the same time. [Plus, he’s just so damn pretty—Ed.] He’s a galvanizing figure, to be sure, and has attracted more attention (positive or negative) then most of our generation’s iconic music figures.
It’s also hard to deny that Oberst’s favorite muse is his reflection in the mirror—perhaps the fault of his youth, but Lifted (and especially his earlier material) is very self-centered. The one concession on his last album, “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves”, was a raucous but unfocused worldly gripe, and his episode against Clear Channel onstage from a Clear Channel show made us all smile a little; but protractors waited for the day Oberst would find a way to expand his view, not necessarily past himself, but to a degree that Oberst would find a way to not only give insight into his life but to paint an image of his surroundings and how they’ve done their part in creating the man singing.
I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, thankfully, comes from a man who has finally gotten it—by putting his typical musings and introspections against a politically tense, media-oppressive backdrop and the jutting edifice of New York, the nation’s most recognizable and instantly poetic city, Oberst has added perspective and depth to his writing. Now it’s all of us, his peers and his elders, that see our own youths where his lie. He’s also put his exponentially improved abilities on the center stage. His songs are suddenly more consistent and intricate—avoiding the peaks and valleys and jumpiness of Lifted means more of these songs sound alike, but each is so detailed and carefully built that you’ll never get tired. Oberst practically claims Americana as his own—no one with a strong voice and acoustic guitar has embodied the spirit of conflicted nationalism since D*lan (lest we say his name in a Bright Eyes review anymore).
It’s the muffled grip of “Laura Laurent” that finds its standards retread here, except infinitely more timeless. Emmylou Harris and Jim James only add to Oberst’s vision, and he’s finally roped his voice in. By remaining a more controlled whisper, nothing gets in the way of the force and beauty of this new batch of songs. No longer does Conor try to grab our attention with his voice—it’s his songwriting and poetry that manage to run us over.
First single “Lua”, which shadows the melody of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in some odd way, is desolate and sparse. As Oberst walks down the street hung-over and pensive, Gotham’s visual minutiae rolling past his peripheral, he reflects upon the depthlessness of New York’s socialites and party-scene regretting “The mask I polish in the evening / By the morning looks like shit.” “We Are Nowhere, and It’s Now”, Harris’ first appearance, is slowly burning and beautifully miserable, wallowing in the constant electricity of the Big Apple; check the turn that comes at the end the verse—”I’ve got no plans and too much time / I feel too restless to unwind / I’m always lost in thought / As I walk a block to my favorite neon sign.”
“Landlocked Blues”, one of the tracks Oberst road-tested on his tour with close friends M. Ward and the aforementioned James, is far heavier with the wilting sleepiness of Harris’ accompaniment. Her contributions to the record cannot be overlooked—she doesn’t appear on most of these tracks because she’s Emmylou Harris—any of the songs she appears on wouldn’t have the same essence without her.
It might be hyperbole to claim that I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning just sounds like a classic album. Only millions of spins can confirm such suspicions. These songs are created for universal appeal, for durability, for historical significance, and for heartfelt moments. Actually, it’s not easy to put your finger on why I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning sounds so alive. Moments like the way “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)” gently rolls in, sophisticated but unsure, constantly surprise and still manage to tug after the novelty should have worn off. It seems a mortal lock that this album makes an impact immediately, despite the fact it hasn’t been cool to tote around a heavy mind with your open heart and acoustic guitar in forever. Retreading certain eras will only get you so much time in the spotlight (see: GARAGE ROCK). This classicism ensures a longer shelf life. Finally; someone has captured the confusion, introspection, fear and undeniable excitement of the period of early-adulthood when life is about looking back, looking forward, getting drunk, getting stoned, and finding yourself; all while trying to form a mission statement of self and find someplace that feels like home.