DIgital Ash in a Digital Urn has ‘ascended the throne,’ so to speak, as my favorite Conor Oberst release. I am confident in this pick because this, the 7th (or technically the 6th, if you count A Christmas Album as a release) album out of 9 so far released under the Bright Eyes name, is far and away the most ambitious to date.
I favor Digital Ash for a few reasons past that as well, though. Maybe this isn’t the best of them, so I’ll get it out of the way first: it doesn’t feel much like the rest of his discography.
Take opener “Time Code” for example. It begins as something of a Nine Inch Nails b-side, with a literal door opening, and segues to a classic Reznor-esque, Downward Spiral-influenced track with overdubs, electronic-influenced drums, and even some shearing crowd chants. It wraps up with a traditional alarm clock ringing to the zenith.
Over the course of the next 11 tracks, The Faint’s drummer the Clark Baechle, Mike f’ing Mogis, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner, the illustrious Nate Walcott, Azure Ray songbird Maria Taylor and a slew of others exact their influence. As the first, and thus far only “electronic” Bright Eyes album (I would classify The People’s Key as an indie rock record first, with deep electronic influences), it’s a different take from the breathless folk and lo-fi rock of the early catalogue.
Which isn’t to say that it’s my favorite because it’s the only one of its kind in the discography. That would be dismissive of an outstanding body of work. I think it’s more because Digital Ash in some ways forced Conor out of his comfort zone. He rested on his laurels for I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and it made for a record that was predictable.
I feel like there’s a reason he released two albums at the same time. Something deeper than just extra material that didn’t mesh with one another. A think a lot of I’m Wide Awake is pandering to a certain audience who expected something similar to LIFTED. Maybe Digital Ash was just a one-off, because the follow up to the two albums released in 2005 was Cassadaga, a record with a folk heart (“Four Winds,” “I Must Belong Somewhere”) and country influences (“Classic Cars”).
Some of the songs on this album feel downright cavernous, or like being underwater. “Devil in the Details” and “Theme to Piñata” are the best of these. The intentional murkiness adds to the general feel of the album: cold and desperate.
Thematically, Digital Ash is, as you might imagine, quite dark. On “Devil in the Details,” Conor spins a tale of drug use and love lost. And in classic Oberst fashion, politics don’t escape the brunt of his malcontent. On both “Easy/Lucky/Free” and “Light Pollution” takes a stab at the American dream. The latter song contains one of the most beautiful moments on the whole album:
And maybe he lost control
Fucking with the radio
But I bet the stars
Seemed so close
At the end
(at the end)
So while Digital Ash won’t see a sequel, its influences can be felt all over The People’s Key and to a far lesser extent, Cassadaga. Good stuff through and through.
From the black sheep of his 2005 double release, this is “Hit the Switch” –
Standout tracks: “I Believe in Symmetry” and “Easy/Lucky/Free”
Weakest track: Though I’ve waffled on this, “Ship in a Bottle” gets on my nerves these days. Somebody shut that baby the hell up.
RIYL: The Cure, Duran Duran, electronic rock, darker indie.