Bright Eyes is the band belonging to rock waif Conor Oberst, who has been writing and recording since he was a squeaky-voiced 13 year old. Often compared to Bob Dylan, I would also compare him to Morrissey in that he is certainly one of the most gifted lyricists of our generation, dealing with the brutal truth of life in the most honest way.
With an incredibly rich back catalogue of work, ranging from angsty rock to folk to electronica to country, and with an ever-changing band line-up, Conor is not afraid to experiment or push himself creatively. Often unfairly lumped in with either the emo scene or bland singer-songwriters, he is actually in a league of his own, combining his frail voice with his impassioned writing.
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn was released in 2005 alongside the country-tinged I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, and in my opinion was criminally overlooked in favour of the latter. The mere sniff of the word ‘digital’ in the title had die-hard Bright Eyes fans wailing that the album was soulless, or too dancey, but apart from a few extra keyboards and an ever-present drum machine, Digital Ash has at least as much soul as I’m Wide Awake and certainly as many hooks.
The bravery of simultaneously releasing two albums of such diversity and extreme strengths should be recognised as being truly groundbreaking.
Bright Eyes — Digital Ash In A Digital Urn: Track-by-track review
1. “Time Code”
As keen Bright Eyes followers will be aware, Conor has the annoying habit of opening each album with some unlistenable noise, often with a song tacked on halfway through so you’re forced to sit through it.
Here things are not so bad, there’s not much of a song to speak of as such, but there are some sound effects of someone running upstairs, and some heavy breathing, followed by Conor whispering a bit. I think it’s meant to be atmospheric. You can skip it.
2. “Gold Mine Gutted”
“Gold Mine Gutted” was a single from the album and is radio friendly enough without being cheesy or saccharine. Opening with a drum machine and keyboard, Conor’s lyrics sound very controlled and the hook is memorable, and very immediate.
The lyrics about “a bag we buy and divvy up” seem to allude to Conor’s well-documented drug habit. There is something almost mournful and nostalgic about the track towards the end.
3. “Arc Of Time (Time Code)”
“Arc of Time” opens with another drum machine, and Conor’s vocals seem to overlap on themselves. The song is slightly jerky and stop/starty so I can see why it might offend the more folky of the Bright Eyes fanbase.
But I think this song and others like it on the album really push the Bright Eyes sound forward. My only criticism of this track is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s fun to listen to, but it isn’t that memorable.
4. “Down In A Rabbit Hole”
This is one of the darkest tracks on the album, with probably the most ambiguous lyrics, although there are definitely veiled drug references again with mentions of hearts racing and tin foil.
A drum machine is present again, as well as strings adding to the uncomfortable atmosphere. The last part of the song is reminiscent of a film soundtrack, with an echoing female vocal. Despite its subject matter, it is still a pleasurable listen.
5. “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)”
This was the first single from the album, and I remember my excitement upon first hearing it. An infectiously catchy tale of an ill-fated one night stand, the lyrics paint a vivid picture of a man deciding to give up on love and just enjoy himself.
It is the most drum-machine and keyboard heavy song on the album, which adds to the modern, fresh feel to it. The drums sounds very crunchy in parts, and like nothing I had ever heard from Bright Eyes before.
6. “Hit The Switch”
“Hit The Switch” feels more like a traditional Bright Eyes song in that it is driven by incredibly honest lyrics that take you on a journey through the singer’s disaffected psyche.
From feeling alone at a table of friends, to debating giving up drinking after a heavy night out, it is somewhere we have all been. But finally he decides to just live his life the way he wants to, and it is a joyful ending. A perfect pop song.
7. “I Believe In Symmetry”
This is my favourite song on the album. Infuriatingly, the first half of this song sounds incredibly like “99 Red Balloons” by Nena, which used to drive me halfway insane. But once you get over that, this song is as good as it gets.
A lot less electronic, it has a driving force of the hugely strong lyrics and melody. The second half is where it really takes off though, and when the strings kick in, it becomes heartbreakingly good, enough to make you weep. I just want it to go on forever and ever. The lyric “there’s happiness in death” is just beautiful. I could die happy after hearing this.
8. “Devil In The Details”
A bit of a let down after “I Believe In Symmetry,” this song seems to be the quieter companion of “Down In a Rabbit Hole.” The music is quite pared down, and gloomy, but towards the end of the song it does pick up a bit. Definitely more filler than killer though. The album can’t be all amazing though, can it?
9. “Ship In A Bottle”
This is a brilliant pop song, in the more traditional Bright Eyes story-telling style, with some wonderfully evocative lyrics coupled with some good old Conor shouty bits.
Unfortunately, probably the most memorable thing thing about it is an awful sample of a baby crying in it. Absolutely horrible. It’s like Conor is trying to make you hate the song. But don’t let him! It’s great.
10. “Light Pollution”
“Light Pollution” is another really hooky pop song, telling the story of a friend’s death in the most upbeat way possible. It’s impossible not to be carried along with it.
I love it when it kicks in again in the middle. You also get a bit of Conor shouting, which I always enjoy. The best part is the last line:
I bet the stars seemed so close at the end
11. “Theme From Piñata”
Again, a bit of a let down after the energy of “Light Pollution,” this song is a bit nothingy and contains the cringeworthy lyrics:
I feel like a piñata
Won’t you take a swing at me
Unforgivable. The song doesn’t really go anywhere after that, but has a flute solo, which is not to be recommended either. Could do better.
Another single from the album, this song is a lush, apocolyptic way to finish the album. The first verse has Conor almost rapping over a drum machine (that sounds awful — it’s not).
He is joined on the chorus by some haunting female backing vocals and the echo on his voice is incredibly effective in creating a mood. There is real emotion behind the words, and the fade out of “there’s nothing” is just right to end the album.
Digital Ash In A Digital Urn by Bright Eyes
“Gold Mine Gutted”
“Arc Of Time (Time Code)”
“Down In A Rabbit Hole”
“Take It Easy (Love Nothing)”
“Hit The Switch”
“I Believe In Symmetry”
“Devil In The Details”
“Ship In A Bottle”
“Theme From Piñata”