Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning came into my collection at a time my musical tastes were changing. My husband had gotten me hooked on John Gorka & Emmylou Harris & I was ready to start exploring my folksier music side. One compilation of Pete Seeger cover songs introduced me to so many bands that I still love. So, in 2004, when Wide Awake came out, I was still reading Alternative Press & I was intrigued by the reviewer’s promises of alt-country/indie gems from the earnest Conor Oberst.
But after I listened to Wide Awake a few times, I realized that Bright Eyes marks a very specific boundary for me–just how far my tolerance for indie rock will go. There are acts whose mix of Americana, folk, and rock move me deeply: Neko Case, Straylight Run, Cordelia’s Dad, Andrew Bird & Richmond-based Ophelia. And on the very border of that preference, right before sheer irritation, is Bright Eyes.
I listened to Wide Awake multiple times for this blog post, just as I had when I first bought it. There is so much I want to like: the songs are well-crafted, the lyrics are pretty decent & the genre is one I enjoy. But. . . Oberst’s voice is so goddamn seriously sincere, the listener might find themselves wanting to tell him to lighten the hell up, this isn’t an audition for the latest Zach Braff film.
Oberst’s hyper-sincerity can be both laughable & admirable during a cynical time. His song “We Are Nowhere And It’s Now” realizes that & throws down a challenge in the opening lines: “If you swear that there’s no truth and who cares, why do you say it like you’re right? Why are you scared to dream of God, when it’s salvation you want?” Hard to argue with the songwriter whose ready for a difficult audience.
Speaking of lyrics, even though I might be turned off by the quavering emotion Oberst delivers his lines in, I do enjoy the words he’s singing. One particular favorite: “All the way home held your camera like a bible, just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth.” Another: “So now I’m drinking, breathing, writing, singing. Everyday I’m on the clock. My mind races with all my longings, but I can’t keep up with what I’ve got.” Wide Awake was written during George W. Bush’s presidency and it’s clear in most of the songs what Oberst thought of our former president. Yet with our foreign policy still pretty dysfunctional, the songs from Wide Awake still feel relevant, “Landlocked Blues” in particular.
Unfortunately, as much as I’ve tried to enjoy Bright Eyes, I’m ready to let Wide Awake go. Turns out there’s room for only one candid quavering male songwriter in my life & it’s not Mr. Oberst. But, I’m still willing to give Monsters of Folk a try.