Music is the purest form of artistic expression. In an age where artists are chewed up and spat out faster than a Wrigley’s Spearmint, it’s a notion you could almost be forgiven for forgetting. Less and less it becomes about aesthetic, replaced instead by the thirst for survival. Message alone won’t shift records, after all.
Some will buck the trend, play the long game. Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one example; what amounted to indifference in 1998 has given way to a feverish idolism of songwriter Jeff Mangum, some 15 years later. Armed with only a handful of chords, simple song construction and 11 tracks, the album captured the imagination and emotional fragility of its artistic message – Mangum had a story he wanted to tell. The Antlers' Hospice has since had a similar impact, making waves throughout indie circles with its raw, morbid honesty. The pair are perhaps the two most emotionally-devastating records of the past 20 years; fraught with personal loss, their imperfect voices will resonate with listeners for decades.
And then there’s Bright Eyes.
At its crux, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning cuts its audience to a similar depth, so close to the bone it becomes an almost uncomfortable experience. The album is a bittersweet work of art masquerading as an upbeat country/Americana record, one so emotionally self-aware it could come off as calculated if delivered by a lesser-artist. But even if it were, the album deserves every accolade bestowed upon it – to engineer emotion to this degree, with such intelligent wordplay and stripped-down arrangements, requires no small amount of skill.
There’s little technical proficiency on show, no quirky instrumentation (‘Road to Joy’ exempted); the album’s heart and soul lie in the voice of Conor Oberst. His lyrics are brilliantly introspective, weaved with a mixture of unusual, almost abrasive expression and clever utterances (at no point do the words feel predictable, or compromised in favour of melody), and the stories are told eloquently – aided, no doubt, by the minimal repetition throughout the album. At times it possesses an almost Mark Kozelek-level of reflection, instances in ‘Old Soul Song’ and the cocaine-fuelled ‘Lua’ feel Red House Painters-esque in their morbidity. But while Kozelek often revels in his misery, Oberst will mask it behind accessible and curiously upbeat melodies, a talent in itself.
It’s a remarkably clever approach, allowing the listener to disassociate somewhat from raw emotionality of the subject matter, lest it become overly bleak. Album opener ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ chastises 21st century human conditioning amidst the backdrop of airborne tragedy, but the melody and arrangement sugar-coat it to such a degree it becomes an exemplary juxtaposition. It’s this sort of aesthetic that sets I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’apart from its contemporaries – while the ever-excellent Hospice has a similar emotional scope, its wallows in its despair and plays on the heartbreak of its audience. Bright Eyes, in comparison, have produced an album that feels almost life-affirming in its presentation; it never indulges itself by sinking too low. The final trilogy of songs, ‘Landlocked Blues’ through ‘Road to Joy’, are the best example of this formula at work; it would have been remarkably easy to end the album without crescendo, but instead the tale of loss and fervent ambiguity gives way to a cornucopia of sound – a brilliant re-arrangement of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, complemented with some of the album’s best lyrical work and delivered with intense conviction. Oberst’s voice may have cracks around the edges, but it lends the work an unparalleled tone and brevity.
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’is masterful; an infectious record with every lyric a painstakingly-crafted story complimented by haunting yet uplifting resonance. Bright Eyes have created an album will endure for years, and give the hoards of embittered-20-somethings clutching their Antlers LPs something else to cry about. Nicely done.
This originally appeared over on the Closing Time blog