To Protest and Serve
At my great-aunt Lena's funeral last month in Queens, I saw my cousin Jim for the first time in years. "Little Jimmy," who now towers over me, always had a weekend gig in the Army Reserves. Lately, however, he's been training Iraq-bound recruits full-time. In fact, things are so busy he came to church in camouflage gear---albeit clean, pressed, and set off with a beret---so he could report directly to Fort Totten afterward. Jim doesn't expect to be called to the Middle East this year. But with talk of domestic training ops being farmed out to private contractors (who are less interested in Baghdad-based work; beheadings and all that), he isn't placing bets.
Which raises the old question: For how much longer must young people clean up our government's shit? I think about this when listening to I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek), two new CDs by 24-year-old Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes, a.k.a. New Dylan #36. It's partly because many of the songs address the war, partly because they show Oberst battling doubt, depression, and other stuff 24-year-olds (and 44-year-olds) must struggle with. It's also because the young Skywalker is effectively battling Clear Channel, the post-deregulation monster that controls a growing share of U.S. radio stations and live music venues. Artists love to hate 'em, but few have the cojones to dis 'em (let alone on national TV, as Oberst did during the 2003 Shortlist Prize broadcast) or avoid doing business with them on a major tour, as Bright Eyes is currently doing.
This should prove interesting as, in the wake of his Vote for Change gigs with R.E.M. and Springsteen, Oberst's profile is about to swell again. Wide Awake and Digital Ash are his Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, his OK Computer and Kid A, his Transatlanticism and Give Up--an ambitious pair of CDs that both define a franchise and explode it. Wide Awake begins with a story about two passengers on a crashing jet that sounds inspired by Laurie Anderson's early-'80s performance piece United States ("From the Air," "Born, Never Asked"), an odd source for an indie folk-rock singer from Omaha, Nebraska. Or maybe not: Anderson was another Midwestern kid who moved to New York City to court her muse, and who used music, storytelling, and political commentary to unite red- and blue-state cultures in a single bruise-colored reality (as did that dude from Hibbing who just wrote Chronicles Vol. 1).
Oberst's story segues into "At the Bottom of Everything," a string-band two-step about baptism and emptiness that would fit O Brother, Where Art Thou? if the film were set in Brooklyn, 2005. "We Are Nowhere and It's Now" is a waltz about drunkenness and drift where grievous angel Emmylou Harris floats in to reprise her role of Duet Partner for Brilliant Country-Rock Singer-Songwriters with a Tendency Toward Self-Destruction (see Gram Parsons, Steve Earle). Harris turns up elsewhere, too, though the combination never quite gels--Oberst's tremulous voice allows little room for others except as texture. But as a metaphor for that solitude no lover can breach, the pairing works. On "Landlocked Blues," which Oberst has been developing live for a year or two, the singers attempt to drink and fuck themselves into plausible states of denial. "We made love on the living room floor/With the noise in the background from a televised war/And in that deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say/If we walk away, they'll walk away."
Wide Awake's lush country-rock is the record Oberst might've made for Universal's boutique label Lost Highway if he'd given in to their wooing (he stuck with his longtime pals at Omaha-based indie Saddle Creek). Meanwhile, Digital Ash finally lives up to his goth/new romantic haircut! He cloaks himself in minor-key synths and fingers his old cassette copy of the Cure's Staring at the Sea, with help from fellow new-wave fetishists in the Faint, Rilo Kiley, Postal Service, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Oberst sounds great with sequenced drums, samples, and a string section; who knew? There's an actual rock guitar solo on "Down in a Rabbit Hole," a dystopian vision not unlike Radiohead's similarly bunny-fixated "Myxomatosis." But my current fave is "I Believe in Symmetry," which borrows some melody from Nena's 1984 bubblegum antiwar tune "99 Luftballons." In it, the singer advances "an argument for consciousness"--that state of heightened awareness Oberst constantly wrestles with in his songs, even when they're about boozing oneself blind. Really, isn't that battle enough for any young man? Here's hoping Oberst finds the courage to accept the things he cannot change, the strength to change the things he can, and that my cousin stays out of the line of fire in 2005.
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