on 9 October 2005
This is an extraordinary album, and one that shows the astounding musical progression that Oberst has made since the last Bright Eyes LP, Lifted. Like Lifted, or for that matter the first two Bright Eyes albums, Letting Off the Happiness and Fevers and Mirrors, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning features a collection of gorgeous, introverted confessionals that range in style from the subdued folk of a song like Lua, to the alt-country influence of Land Locked Blues, right the way through the closing bile of the Beethoven meets Astral Weeks indie-rock of Road to Joy. The lyrics are as strong and astounding as those found on the albums that came before, however, the musical arrangements and overall production of the album is here more polished - or, for the lack of a better word, professional - with none of the intentionally lo-fi excursions found on some of my favourite Bright Eyes songs, like When the Curious Girl Realises She is Under Glass, or A Song to Pass the Time.
The album, like Fevers and Mirrors, begins with a short monologue, this time about a woman on a plane travelling to meet her fiancé when the engines give out. Oberst's frantic delivery and the sentiment behind the scenario are quite heartbreaking - whilst the subconscious allusions to those that would have been stranded on the doomed September 11th flights and the final thoughts that must have been running through their minds ("we love you very, very, very, very, very, very much") can't help but send a shiver down your spine - before Oberst finally breaks into song and the album takes off. From this point on, there really isn't a weak moment, as Oberst and his band (here comprising of Jesse Harris on guitar, Jason Boesel on drums, Tim Luntzel on bass and Nick White on piano and organ) put gorgeous arrangements to some of the most touching and/or heartbreaking of lyrics, to create ten songs that can be appreciated separately, or listened to as one cohesive whole.
Some have said that this is a concept album, but I wouldn't know much about that myself - though certainly there is a lot of repeated imagery and symbolism in the lyrics - so to me, it's just an album to enjoy, with each separate song offering up a little narrative filled with hope and despair. It is impossible for me to pick favourites here, because to me, the whole album is perfect, though I will say that the inclusion of Emmylou Harris as backing vocalist on three of the songs here (We Are Nowhere and it's Now, Another Travelin' Song and Land Locked Blues) really works well, and gives the record (and those songs in particular) an added depth and emotional resonance. The First Day of My Life is a beautiful and uplifting little song that shows the three main components of the band (Harris, Luntzel and Oberst) working at their absolute best, with great dual guitar playing, rhythm section and vocals all complementing the lovely lyrics and elegant melody. Lua, on the other hand, contrasts with the rest of the album nicely, standing as a solo acoustic number in which Oberst takes six simple chords and crafts a sprawling tale of two doomed lovers, in a way that brings to mind the evocative poetry and storytelling prowess of early Dylan.
I'm really tempted to include a few choice quotes to give an example of just how great the lyrics here are, but I would no doubt get carried away and end up copying every lyric from the album, with Oberst easily standing alongside some of my all time favourite melancholy or reflective lyricists, like Morrissey, Ray Davies, Neil Hannon, Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake. There are the usual examples of shop-bought philosophy rubbing shoulders with overblown angst in a song like At The Bottom Of Everything ("we must blend into the choir sing as static with the whole... we must memorise nine numbers and deny we have a soul"), and then the more political pontificating continued on from Lifted's epic denouement, Lets Not Sh*t Ourselves with the closing track here, Road To Joy, which takes lyrics like "so when you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing... it's best to join the side that's gonn'a win... and no one's sure how all of this got started... but we're gonn'a make them goddamn certain, how it's gonn'a end" and spews them over Beethoven's distinctive melody.
The more reflective moments work best for me, with Poison Oak seemingly telling the tale of a drug-using transvestite's trip to Mexico, whilst also continuing the themes and ideas first established earlier on We Are Nowhere And It's Now (Oberst croon in a wavering voice, "I never thought this life was possible... you're the yellow bird that I've been waiting for", which alludes back to the line about "did you forget your yellow bird?"). Landlocked Blues is the album's epic break-up song... built around three or four chords and dashed off with a minimal approach to production. Oberst's vocals sound even more powerful when stripped of all the immature screaming, whilst the inclusion of Emmylou Harris takes an already beautiful song to the next emotional level. The references in the song to a character called Laura seem to point back to Laura Laurent from Lifted, whilst the verse "I keep drinking the ink from my pen, and I'm balancing history books up on my head... but it all boils down to one quotable phrase, if you love something give it away" is beautiful, and insightful in it's naive simplicity.
The songs hang together perfectly and establish a wavering mood of reflection, contempt and heartache that is beautifully sustained throughout. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is the album that Oberst and his cohorts have been moving towards since Fevers and Mirrors, creating a record that still has the angst and catharsis, but combines it to a more understated approach to instrumentation and a more mature sound.