THANKS FOR THE ANGST

The 24-year-old singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, who records with a rotating cast of players under the name Bright Eyes, inspires one of two emotions among indie-rock fans: reverence or disdain. There's no middle ground on the guy. To loyalists, he is the second coming of Dylan--a shy Midwestern kid who's been playing in bands since he was 14, who built an exciting, tightknit music scene in his hometown of Omaha, Neb., and who writes folk-troubadour tunes with lyrics so naked that they approach poetry. To detractors, he's a whiny stiff. After hearing his band's last CD, 2002's "Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground," which was every bit as bloated as its title, I was firmly in the whiny-stiff camp. Though obviously talented, Oberst was like an unguided missile. Songs wandered on for six, eight, 10 minutes, as if he had no say in the matter. But now he's releasing two new CDs on the same day--quite the chest-pounding move for a vegan. And one of them is so good I'm replanting my flag in the loyalist camp. I stand corrected: Oberst is the real deal.

"I'm Wide Awake It's Morning," the first disc, opens with Oberst narrating a story about a woman flying to meet her fiance. The plane's engines fail, and as it goes down, the woman asks the man next to her what will happen. "We're going to a party," he says reassuringly. "It's your birthday party. Happy birthday!" Then he sings to her a countrified, whistling-past-the-graveyard stomp. Hope versus desolation is a pet theme of Oberst's, and it's always suited his chief asset: the tension between his thin, trembling voice and the crisp confidence of his lyrics. On "Wide Awake" he's in total control. Each song is like a complete thought, with nothing more, or less, than necessary. His voice often climbs to an angsty, almost-punk roar, while his band, as if oblivious, sticks to its honest country vibe. Best of all is "Land Locked Blues," a duet with Emmylou Harris about love, fighting and surrender: "The world's got me dizzy again/you'd think after 22 years I'd be used to the spin/And it only feels worse when I stay in one place/so I'm always pacing around or walking away." Then a lonely, and unexpected, trumpet solo just nails you.

Oberst's decision to release two discs at once all but guarantees that the lesser one will be slighted. "Digital Ashes in a Digital Urn"--which, as the Keatsian name implies, features his usual poetics set to electronic bleeps--isn't a bad album. It's fast and accessible, if occasionally chilly. But next to a jewel like "Wide Awake," it comes off as merely a well-executed experiment. Oberst has always been too prolific. Since 2002 he's released a stream of EPs, as though his every doodle deserves an audience--and no one's that good. Trim the fat, Conor, so we can concentrate on a great young artist hitting his stride.

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THANKS FOR THE ANGST | News