In juxtaposing then-President Bush with the coffins of dead soldiers, Don Kelly (2017) quickly succeeds in appealing to liberals yet risks alienating conservatives, given the partisan nature of public opinion on the Iraq war effort (Dugan 2013). However, he deftly shifts attention from the first paragraph’s stinging criticism to Conor Oberst’s own voice. By invoking the Bright Eyes frontman’s own words and lyrics – the At the Bottom of Everything verse is particularly instructive – Kelly convinces us that the political intent was Oberst’s and not his.
Beyond political context, this review offers little stylistic evaluation. Kelly does point out the sparse use of instrumentation, a minimalist approach which means less material to work with, though Oberst’s angsty vocals and whimsical rhythms warrant deeper analysis. He does well to reference lyric passages for his arguments; his interpretation of the ironic blend of sorrow and playfulness – exemplified by Train Under Water – is a strong point.
The rest of the discussion, sadly, appears slipshod. The names of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, and Roy Orbison are dropped, without explaining which elements of Bright Eyes’ songs are comparable. Emmylou Harris – who harmonizes on three tracks – is mentioned only as an afterthought, even when earlier reviews (Pitchfork 2005; Rolling Stone 2009) have managed to elaborate on her significance. And while Kelly attempts a comparison with the preceding album, he fails to mention Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, an experimental album Bright Eyes concurrently released in 2005. For a review lauding Oberst’s political consciousness, this is a glaring oversight.
Overall, I expected more of a review written a full 12 years after the release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Only four songs are actually discussed; no mention is given to the second single First Day of my Life, by far Bright Eyes’ most-listened song on YouTube. Kelly’s conclusion, though, strikes a chord. In tying Oberst’s awakening to Trump-era moods, I became conscious of the cyclical nature of music reception: how musical success is dependent on the times, and how its intentions can be regenerated for a future context.
Dahlen, Chris. 2005. “Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning”. Pitchfork, January 23. http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/11683-im-wide-awake-its-morning-digital-ash-in-a-digital-urn/.
Dugan, Andrew. 2013. “On 10th Anniversary, 53% in U.S. See Iraq War as Mistake”. Gallup, March 18. http://www.gallup.com/poll/161399/10th-anniversary-iraq-war-mistake.aspx.
Kelly, Don. 2017. “Discography: Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.” Spectrum Culture, January 25. http://spectrumculture.com/2017/01/25/discography-bright-eyes-im-wide-awake-morning/.
Sheffield, Rob. 2009. “Bright Eyes: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning”. Rolling Stone, January 28. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/im-wide-awake-its-morning-20090128.