Anniversary Records: Bright Eyes – ‘Digital Ash In A Digital Urn’

Digital Ash

Welcome to Anniversary Recordsa column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.

Anniversary Records: Bright Eyes – Digital Ash In A Digital Urn

by Chad Jewett

Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, the simultaneous 2005 releases from Omaha indie-folk collective Bright Eyes, arrived with dual, mirroring narratives. The backstory sewn to Wide Awake was that of the Midwestern art kid moving to the Big City (in this case, New York) for the first time. And that framework caught on, at least in part because it was true – both in the sense that Conor Oberst did move from Nebraska (where all previous Bright Eyes albums were recorded) to Manhattan, but also because that journey, from periphery to center, has carried cultural weight for at least a century. Oberst’s move echoed that of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote and half the Beat Poets, and finally Bob Dylan (the release of the folkish, archetype-heavy Wide Awake would mark the high-water point of critical comparisons between Oberst and Dylan). Hell, even Taylor Swift made her version of that record with last year’s 1989 (even though, coincidentally, that album sounds a lot like Digital Ash).

Wide Awake was hushed and romantic and compulsively listenable, calmly twilit in ways that Bright Eyes’ previous, slightly abrasive, always fraught discography was not. It also leaned into Oberst’s love of not only Dylan (if, as Springsteen put it, “Like A Rolling Stone” kicked open the door to your mind, then “Road To Joy” hacked away at the wood), but also Paul Simon, Loudon Wainwright III, and Gram Parsons (a comparison seemingly courted by several duets with one time Parsons collaborator Emmylou Harris). Everything about Wide Awake felt like perfectly measured tour de force. The album was designed to be loved; which was its immediate fate.

But Digital Ash In A Digital Urn is a thornier thing, a more challenging listen, and, ultimately, a better album. Its frame told the opposite story of Wide Awake. This time the narrator leaves New York for the Midwest, and the album’s aesthetic – synthetic and swirling and crisply computerized – reflects a compelling effort to make the sounds of the modern metropolis work for folk music structures (forgetting, of course, that the very internet that buoyed Bright Eyes and Saddle Creek Records arguably erased a lot of that kind of regional difference). Oberst positioned the record as being more about rhythm than words or melodies, but almost all of Digital Ash, with the exception of the textured drone of the excellent album-opener “Time Code” and the slinky, dub-ish eeriness of “Down In A Rabbit Hole”, is sturdy old-school songcraft with the added chrome sheen of New Order, Depeche Mode, Kid A, and Saint Ettiene. These were tunes that still worked in functional songbook A-B-C’s and post-adolescent small-town details of Bright Eyes’ best work. Now they were simply draped with Christmas lights and placed atop gummy grooves.

“Light Pollution” is a folk-punk ode to DIY camaraderie that truly pops because of the song’s digitized energy. “Theme To Piñata” is essentially a pre-rock ballad, something akin to Holly Golightly strumming “Moon River” on her fire escape (another evocation of a folk-ish New York). Both songs are deeply traditional in form, but given more stirring purchase by being creatively re-surfaced with studio brilliance. “Arc of Time” might be defined by its twitchy, tight, circular groove, all rubbery bass and 808 snare claps – adding up to the most danceable and richly irreverent song Bright Eyes would come up with — but notice that when producer and Bright Eyes member Mike Mogis (who does career-best work here) spools backward loops, they are of acoustic guitars and pianos. Rather than cover up a new place (New York) with familiar sounds (indie roots music), Digital Ash lets it all get tangled up and overheated like loose wires. It borrows the maximalism of Bright Eyes’ finest album, 2002’s Lifted, which would turn barrelhouse country, baroque torch songs, and rural punk into one blown-out symphony, and instead compresses all of that stuff – you know, like a computer would – into quick, punchy bursts. The concept holds on Digital Ash: you can hear the striking confusion of a midtown electronic wonderland and the rustle of a rustic span of wheat all at once like some brilliant sound collage.

Yet for all the serious beauty achieved by that synthesis of synthesizers, Digital Ash is a deeply worried album. “Time Code” begins the album with anxious breathing and spare bits of electronic noise – buzzy swaths of keyboard and Oberst’s voice compressed into oblivion: “Death, data entry, ant hill law / Encoded arc, our common cause / Drink liquid clocks ‘til I see God / Crystal display, can’t turn it off / Shhh, Don’t talk, don’t talk”. That’s the entirety of the narrative, and it’s all opaque besides that last thought: “Can’t turn it off”. Big, punchy, overdrive drums enter as punctuation and the song spirals into a long-form groove over which lovely keyboards dot and sparkle, under which bass churns in circles, around which sounds of distended voices and cash machines and computer haze sizzle. There’s a nervousness there, and the one drawback of Digital Ash – by my count Oberst’s second best album – is that the LP too often frets over technology while seemingly missing all the gorgeousness it’s capable of – a potential for transcendent art for which Digital Ash itself is proof positive.

The doubled, ricocheting drums of “Gold Mine Gutted” – always a live treat for that carefully timed wallop – clears away some of the tension, as does the song’s plucky synthesizers and its cool spaciousness. Mainly concerned with the weary details of the wee small hours that then turn into bigger memories and regrets, the song balances images of the plastic and the pastoral in a way that defines the album: there are blinking digital clocks and grass-stained knees, a warping record player and laps run across a soccer field. The song is druggy (like much of the album), but only in the way that the flashing sense memories of Proust are druggy – hypnotic and worn-in and perhaps even revelatory. One reason the mixed reputation of Digital Ash has always been baffling is the fact that the album contains some of Oberst’s most economic and beautifully rendered stories. While Wide Awake is constantly reaching for grandiosity, here Oberst expresses nostalgia and regret with just a pair of images: “And from the sidelines I see you run / Until you’re out of breath / And all those white lines that sped us up / We hurry to our death / Well, I lagged behind, so you got ahead”. The white lines are chemicals and they’re the borders of a soccer field. That breathlessness is pure motion and damaged health. There’s specificity there and a sense of place – two things that recent Conor Oberst solo records have lacked – and the looping, scuffed synth waves of “Gold Mine Gutted” do a nice job modeling memory as something that keeps spinning and picking up tiny changes like wheels across gravel.

Elsewhere, Oberst and company seem to glean some real joy from the sense of possibility and playful inventiveness that this electronic world makes possible. “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)”, co-produced by Dntel and Postal Service member Jimmy Tamborello, builds an air-tight pop song out of the textured wash of sounds: a muted scrap of distorted guitar, a jangling jar of loose change, chopped-up house drums, rogue waves of looping feedback that act like an abstracted string-quartet. The song chatters and buzzes, fits each sudden sonic twitch into its major-key economy, adding up to the most fun any Bright Eyes song would manage to be, constantly building up more and more digital clutter while effervescent keyboards lope overhead (especially in the song’s striking outro) and Oberst sings about memory and young love. Elsewhere, “I Believe In Symmetry” carves a swinging rhythm out of a layer of hacked-up drum loops, borrowing (to put it kindly) the melody from “99 Red Balloons” and surrounding it with an electronic landscape that variably sweeps romantically or hops and skips with neon abandon. “Easy/Lucky/Free” punctuates one instrumental break with a skipping sample of a woman shouting, finding humanity in the synthetic and vice versa. “Ship In A Bottle” pushes the freewheeling studio modernism of Digital Ash to its most avant-garde extreme, at times whittling the track down to a loan bit of bass and a single acoustic guitar note, only to build up to sudden squalls that, most memorably, pair a baby’s cry to a wilting trumpet solo (played with brilliant, startling abandon by Nate Walcott), only to let the two bend and warp into a sort of impressionistic electric storm.

In fact, “Ship In A Bottle” might be the single most underrated song in the Bright Eyes catalogue: a gorgeous, baroque masterpiece that is at once poignant in its biblical questions of doubt and fate and unsettling in its inquiries about humanity and modern problems of knowing. More interesting than a blanket fear of technology-as-opiate, “Ship In A Bottle” is the best of the album’s more moody, anxious moments because the questions it asks about the human search for knowledge are philosophical, poetic. The song offers the intrepid quest of humanity on a Shakespearean scale. Both a narrative about love and a song about God (and fears of both), “Ship In A Bottle” digs deep into the odder contours of the Old Testament, promises like “If you knew who I was / You would never grow old” contrasted with “If you knew how it worked / We’d have to grow old”. Oberst is well aware of the irony that both promise and threat show up in The Book of Genesis – one about rewarding faith, the other about the disquieting punishments God hands down for Adam and Eve’s hunger for knowledge. The title could be about the fragility of human relationships or a dark metaphor for creation myths; the fact that it’s hard to be sure exactly where the two connect is part of what makes “Ship In A Bottle” so compelling. It’s the finest balancing act Oberst ever managed. The music itself is as queasy as the soul-searching done in the song’s narrative, Oberst’s voice constantly clouded over with Mike Mogis’s hazy echoes, choruses punctuated with rusted-up guitar, that eerie bridge of trumpet and mewls, the whole thing set to a woozy, disorienting swing-time. Amongst the noir-ish, sonically-adventurous minor key songs that dot Digital Ash – “Down In A Rabbit Hole”, “Devil In The Details” – “Ship In A Bottle” stands out for its twin grip on atmosphere and craft.

The album ends with “Easy/Lucky/Free”. Both a sprawling, lush finale and the last of several elegiac passages that run throughout Digital Ash – most saliently on the mournful yet triumphant “Light Pollution” – “Easy/Lucky/Free” reads like the most hushed, contemplative version of the all-encompassing outro that Oberst has attempted to write several times, including Lifted’s fiery “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” and the wistful humanism of “One For You, One For Me” that closes out The People’s Key. “Easy/Lucky/Free” forms atop the even thrum of programmed bass and a blocky, ticking beat, rounded out with spare brushstrokes of keys and the wax and wane of keening slide guitar that further underline the album’s multi-regional theme – the sounds of country and electro-pop melted together. Balancing loss and optimism, “Easy/Lucky/Free” remains profoundly moving: “I never really dreamed of heaven much until we put him in the ground / But it’s all I’m doing now / Listening for patterns in the sound / Of an endless static sea”. In some ways the song is a companion piece to Wide Awake’s deeply affecting “Poison Oak”, which similarly searches for answers in light of a friend’s passing. Oberst offers an autumnal version of the sunny, pastoral camaraderie once explored on 2002’s “Loose Leaves” as he again calls up images of friend and foliage: “I always figured there’d be time enough / I never let it get me down / But I can’t help it now / Looking for faces in the clouds / I’ve got some friends I barely see / But we’re all planning to meet / We’ll lay in bags as dead as leaves / All together for eternity”.

Gone are the stomach-churning questions of “Ship In A Bottle”, replaced by something like wistful acceptance. That tender balance of sorrow and joy colors the song’s chorus: “Honey, don’t you weep (Don’t you weep for them) / Don’t you weep / There is nothing as lucky, as easy, or free”. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning ends with one last statement of bravery in the face of certain defeat. Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, for all of its deep-down anxiety, for all of its many swirling doubts, ends with something more intangibly hopeful, like a sudden, bright spark of electricity in the air, be it a nova or a neon light. “I bet the stars seemed so close at the end…”


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Half Cloth

Independent Music & Arts Criticism

6 Responses

  1. Chris Ogden says:

    I only discovered this page coincidentally after realising that Bright Eyes’ ‘Twin Albums’ are indeed ten this year. The anniversary of both has been oddly low-key, but I’m particularly glad to see Digital Ash get some of the recognition and exploration it deserves. Thank you for this!

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