Their most successful record to date, Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning continues to age incredibly well. It isn’t terribly hard to see why: the album features the bustling talents of Conor Oberst in full force, backlit by well-judged production from bandmate Mike Mogis. It captures the group’s strengths more than anything else in their formidable discography, even the simultaneously released Digital Ash In A Digital Urn; you could call it lightning in a bottle if this didn’t imply a lack of quality elsewhere. Sixteen years on and headed with speed towards “classic” territory, It’s Morning is a deserved staple of the early 2000s.
Oberst’s writing is, as usual, frustratingly good. At this point, calling him a talented lyricist is like saying that David Attenborough is a respectable presenter, or that Mary Berry makes decent cakes. His novel metaphors, cavernous imagery and compellingly tortured persona sells some of the best emo-tinged balladry music can get you. On Wide Awake, Conor is also at his most political; the marriage of interpersonal dysthymia with social issues such as drug addiction and US jingoism (“I read the body count out of the paper / And now it’s written all over my face”) is astonishing. It may take a few listens to clock its most subtle moments as it did for me, but the album is littered with great subtext. Even without these periodic underpinnings, Wide Awake is rammed to breaking point with emotive and creative lines. I always want to come back to the record to rediscover new lyrical gems, whether this is being “a single cell on a serpent’s tongue” or experiencing “side effects they don’t advertise”. Oberst’s trembling, occasionally near-drunken singing is not for everybody, but his vulnerable delivery makes the album’s many moments of catharsis all the more stirring. He drawls all over the refrains of ‘Poison Oak’, for instance, sounding truly dishevelled and frustrated — very fitting indeed for a record full of discontent and lamentation.
This is not to undersell I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning sonically, though, as much of what is performed by the record’s mighty list of contributors is a breath of fresh air. Comparisons to Dylan and Cohen are inevitable (not least lyrically) and there is an appreciable job done to dodge the all-too-common cheese of contemporary folk rock. Its variety of instruments avoid being washed out, with acoustic guitars just muddy enough to complement Conor’s crooning; a room-recorded (though it’s unclear whether this was actually the case) sound helps this palette to feel lived in. Wide Awake also incorporates genius moments of levity. The demented and brilliant ‘Road To Joy’, which repurposes the central melody from Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’, is concurrently an explosive, powerful closer as well as a tune that sounds like the band poking fun at themselves. The uneasily delivered spoken-word monologue that introduces ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ also feels flippant (though not quite tongue-in-cheek). In this way, the record does not undermine itself, but does not unpleasantly bask in its own misery, either. The accessibility is impressive for an album that covers so much ground.
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is an easy pick when celebrating the music of the 2000s. It’s one that everybody should spin, great for its era and likely to continue accruing new fans of the band. Its appeal, I hope, prevails.
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is available to listen to now via Saddle Creek.