Guest Blogger Avi Glijansky: Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

14 Sep

I met Avi through my AADA-attending roommates soon after moving home to New York at a Midtown dive bar where he and his band used to play music I loved (and still love).  I was cranky when he moved to LA.

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OK, full disclosure: A song from this album was performed during my wedding ceremony this past October. I tell you this up-front, because it seems only fair that you get a hint of my biases before reading on.

But here’s the thing; when a friend first shared this Bright Eyes album with me, I really expected to dislike them. Honestly, some of my personal prejudices at the time made me want to dislike them. But then I listened, and despite myself I became a fan.

Bright Eyes aren’t exactly a band. For a long time it was just the name that Singer/Guitarist/Songwriter Connor Oberst recorded under with whomever he was making music at the time. Oberst is an indie rock wunderkind, hailed by The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and others as a significant “new” artist when he released his 2002 album LIFTED, OR THE STORY IS IN THE SOIL KEEP YOUR EAR TO THE GROUND at the age of 22. “New,” was a relative term though, since he’d already released 3 albums as Bright Eyes by that point.   He was part of the influential Omaha Music scene of the early 00’s (his brother co-founded Saddle Creek Records), and a member of the indie rock in crowd. Oh yeah, and when he was 23 he dated Winona Ryder.

For all the above reasons, I really wanted to dislike the guy. It was a chip on my shoulder owing something to the fact that we’re the same age and he had done all that, while I was a film student with a Rock ‘n Roll habit in the form of a band that didn’t seem it would ever amount to much (nor did it). Boy geniuses writing political protest songs just rubbed me the wrong way.

But like I said, then I listened.

Oberst and the musicians he brought together for this album are terrific craftsmen. The arrangements on the album are minimal, mostly acoustic guitars and other folk instrumentation; pedal steel, mandolins, Rhodes, and often only a couple at a time. Despite that, the songs don’t feel spare or barren. They feel vibrant, full, and when embellishments pop up (a trumpet that helps carry out Land Locked Blues or one of Emmylou Harris’ pitch perfect turns as an additional vocalist) they don’t feel showy or gimmicky. The choruses may not be arena-sized, but there are plenty of deceptively ear-wormy hooks. It’s easy to catch yourself singing along and tapping your feet. Oberst’s voice isn’t classically strong or pretty, but it’s an emotive instrument and he knows how to use it best on each song.

After a spoken intro (more on that in a few), At the Bottom of Everything kicks things off with a prime example of Oberst’s style of protest song. Musically, the track sticks close to the form, 4 chords and a melody that uses repetition to lend the lyrics an air of mantra-like purpose. It’s a survey of our society’s failings (materialism, inequality, religious fundamentalism, etc.) and could be an Occupy anthem penned 6 years early. But just because the subject matter isn’t novel doesn’t mean it’s not worth writing about, and the turns of phrase he employs are interesting and effective.

“And in the face of every criminal/Strapped firmly to a chair/We must stare, we must stare, we must stare,” Oberst sings at the end of the first verse. It’s not a particularly poetic line; it’s kind of awkward and uncomfortable. But then, so is topic.

From that track on, I’M WIDE AWAKE IT’S MORNING, blends broadscale political/social commentary with deeply personal storytelling in a way that feels both carefully crafted and completely organic.

Over the first four tracks, Oberst and his band slide from that initial protest rallying cry, to a questioning of the values of those same protests (directed both at others and himself on We are Nowhere and it’s Now and Old Soul Song (for the New World Order) ), and finally, in Lua, to candid reflection on a doomed relationship. What stands out about Lua and much of Oberst’s writing on the album is that it manages to make something beautiful and melancholy without glorifying the self-destruction it chronicles.

While the soapbox is never entirely gone, its appearances become entwined with the personal narratives. On Landlocked Blues Oberst sings of making “…love on the living room floor/With the noise in the background of a televised war.” Elsewhere, during raucous album closer Road to Joy (which musically riffs on the Beethoven composition its name spoofs), Oberst equates the way his parents cling to their religion to his own reasons for drinking.

That blending is what I love about this album. It seems to me, a reflection of something fundamentally true about the world we live in these days. If you’re going to write songs about love, fame, drinking, fighting, you know, all the stuff Rock n Roll is made of, how can it not be colored by the issues of the day. Surrounded by 24-hour news cycles, social-media, and cloud-based everything, any distinction between the political songs and personal songs, the public and the private, seems increasingly false.

Now, I admit that it’s not entirely unfair to accuse I’M WIDE AWAKE, IT’S MORNING of pretention. For starters, there’s the fact that it was released simultaneously with an electronic album (seems everyone goes through that phase) called DIGITAL ASH IN A DIGITAL URN. Then there’s that spoken intro to the album’s lead track. Oberst, with phrasing that feels oddly like an Ira Glass impersonation, tells a story about two strangers on a plane that’s falling out of the sky. I still don’t get it.

But ultimately, all of these songs, and the album as a whole, just feel honest.

Which brings me to The First Day of my Life, the album’s 6th track and the song our little cousin sang at our wedding. It’s a love song and perhaps the only song on the album that you could argue really is 100% personal. If the Bright Eyes soapbox is present, I’ve never spotted it. But while it’s sweet, it’s not saccharine, and it sure is honest.

Because, it’s a love song that celebrates grand romantic notions (“Yours is the first face that I saw/swear I was blind before I met you.”), even while acknowledging that love isn’t a sure thing (“With these things there’s no telling/We’ll just have to wait and see”). The song ends on what at first seems like an underwhelming line: “Besides maybe this time is different/I mean I really think you like me.” Doesn’t exactly sound like a Shakespearean sonnet, but I think it’s even more romantic.

Being in love is one thing. Liking the person you’re in love with, really liking who they are as a human being, I’m pretty sure that’s what makes love last.

So yeah, I give this one a recommend. And even if Bright Eyes turns out not to be your thing, I’m going to bet that you’ll at least understand where I’m coming from with regards to The First Day of My Life. If not, I’ll try and sell you on it one last time. Or rather, I’ll let our 9-year-old cousin Sophia, and her father Mike do so.

(Also, just for fun, here’s a Buzzfeed list which takes all the reasons I wanted to hate Connor Oberst, and presents why I might just as well have wanted to be him.)

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Avi Glijansky is an independent Writer/Director/Producer of shorts, web series, and other moving pictures based in Los Angeles.

His work includes the IAWTV Award-nominated shows “The Further Adventures of Cupid & Eros” and “The Social Drinker”, as well as the Celebrate The Web-Winning “The Silver Lake Badminton and Adventurers Club”.

In addition his work behind the camera, Avi used to stand in front of a couple of rock bands that may or may not have been considered “promising” but were certainly “local.”

Should you care to, you can check out his work at highway9pictures.com and listen to his music at davidkirby.bandcamp.com & lostcityradio.bandcamp.com

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