February 3, 2005

Bleeding Plucks and Twangs

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Bright Eyes has certainly come a long way. Before this year, who would have thought that the sad, whiny, maudlin, emo extraordinaire with pathos ripping from the seams would hold the top two singles positions on Billboard’s Hot 100 last month, a feat that hasn’t been realized since 1997 (by none other than Puff Daddy)? And Bright Eyes didn’t even have to exploit his best friend’s death to accomplish it, either. Also, who would have thought that when Bright Eyes was to release his newest album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, it would be featured as the main review for the Cornell Daily Sun, one of the nation’s first daily college newspapers? Well, if no one else, Bright Eyes probably could have foreseen all this, for it is obvious that he developed this album as his ticket out of the indie scene and into the hearts of lonely, romantic adolescents everywhere.

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is Bright Eyes’ follow-up to his dense and eccentric Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. Critics were willing to look past the fact that the album had the most pretentious music title since Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNarama’d into Submission), and gave it the praise the young literate deserved. However, it’s sometimes difficult and intricate details didn’t go over well with mainstream music fans, and wound up selling only 250,000 copies. With It’s Morning, however, Bright Eyes has abandoned his proclivity for impenetrability in favor of simple ditties that often reach beautiful, albeit predictable, heights.

In the tradition of Bob Dylan on Nashville Skyline, Bright Eyes has twisted his folk sound to fit the form of country music, a style he has often flirted with on past songs without being fully based around its structures. Here, he fully embraces the genre’s simplicity, and the result is ten pseudo-standards that offer nothing in terms of innovation, but are strong enough for us to mostly forgive their lack of originality. Anyone who had been ambivalent over Bright Eyes’ sweet but simultaneously cloying melodies and lyrics will be frustrated over his inability to evolve past his penchant for ponderous sentiments and his unyielding dedication to vocally accentuating the last syllable of each sentence he sings. Despite his formal journey into country music, he still does not seem capable of exploring new subjects for his lyrics or singing in anything but his trademark moaning, aching style, which at this point is becoming quite grating. Even Dylan knew to replace his “voice like sand and glue” with a stylized timbre more suitable to country music on Nashville Skyline. Bright Eyes’ ubiquitous sounds of grief seem a little incongruous on It’s Morning, and adopting a different vocal approach could have truly brought his listeners into a new world rather than another foray into alt-country. “Lua”, his number one single and the album’s centerpiece, is a true Bright Eyes classic, perhaps his greatest achievement yet. Built around a precious hook and authentic poignancy, “Lua” is like Radiohead’s “No Surprises” in that it’s hard to believe the song hasn’t been around for fifty years as a standard appreciated by generation after generation: “When everything gets lonely I can be my own best friend/ I get a coffee and the paper; have my own conversations/ With the sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection/ The mask I polish in the evening, by the morning looks like shit.” These lyrics are sung with such genuine sentiments that the listener can’t help but empathize with him, even if they have no idea what he’s talking about. Following “Lua” is “Train Under Water,” the album’s one other chef d’oeuvre. It also has the feel of a standard, but with a slight playfulness that helps to relieve the melancholy inspired by the track preceding it. The subtle note changes that characterize the song’s savory hook are interesting and original enough to excuse the indulgent pun, “Don’t act strange/ Don’t be a stranger”, that momentarily contaminates the song. But part of Bright Eyes’ charm lies in his occasional, unintentional self-parodies, so all is good.

While the album contains plenty of other solid melodies, one can’t help but yearn for something, anything, that does not feel completely studied and contrived. The one “non-sequitur” comes during the album’s last track, the nervous “Road to Joy,” when he decides to “fuck it up, boys!” But even this moment of trumpet-flaring helter-skelter seems completely calculated.

No doubt Bright Eyes is an extremely talented artist, but perhaps his overwhelming critical success has made him hesitant to truly take risks with his tried-and-true song structures. Once he finds a way to combine his deep emotions with his innovative, imaginative side, he will finally create the classic that he keeps falling just short of.

4 Stars

Archived article by Jared Wolfe
Sun Staff Writer