But much has changed for Oberst and company since last we heard from them on Bright Eyes' semi-breakthrough, 2002's Lifted. Oberst relocated to New York City and began dating Winona Ryder. The band played on Letterman and was nominated for 2003's Shortlist Music Prize. As the mainstream beckoned, the indie world held its collective breath and awaited Oberst's reply. Now he's given it in the form of two full-length albums, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, to be released simultaneously. And it turns out he still has something to say.
The country-flavored Awake inhabits the traditional Bright Eyes sound with a rootsier feel, thanks to help from Emmylou Harris, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and liberal use of slide guitar. But it's a transitional album. Gone are the pretentious, precious meandering offered on 1998's Fevers and Mirrors. The beige hues of Omaha are replaced with a palpable New York City vibe. If I don't come back/I mean, if I get sidetracked/It's only 'cause I wanted to, Oberst warbles on "Train Under Water," one of Awake's standout tracks. It's a familiar theme on the album, which is dangerously close to being upbeat, save for the heartbreakingly beautiful "Lua."
If Awake sets up the pins, then Urn knocks them down. Many Bright Eyes diehards won't know initially what to make of this album, which is made up mainly of electronic music. Drum machines, electric guitars and heavy bass fill the space almost beginning to end, and the results are surprisingly satisfying. Who'd have thought Oberst was capable of such an effort? "Arc of Time," complete with an instantly contagious drum riff, is the most radio-friendly tune the band has ever put out. Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner plays on five tracks (including the Cure-tinged closing track, "Easy/ Lucky/Free"), adding heavily to the overriding pulse of the record.
Oberst still indulges himself too much, but at least he seems to be having fun. The band has never sounded more cohesive, and Oberst -- one of the finest songwriters around -- is only getting better. Whether these albums are accepted by both longtime fans and pop culture at large remains to be seen. Either way, he'll keep doing what he does best because, really, he doesn't read the reviews anyway.