Fresh Vision, New Sounds: Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

By Daniel Garrett

Bright Eyes, featuring Conor Oberst
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
Recorded by Mike Mogis and Andy Lemaster
Mixed by Mike Mogis, and mastered by Doug Van Sloun
Saddle Creek, 2005

In the atmospheric piece (“Time Code”) that begins Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, noise and chords and hard-to-interpret chanting give way to strong percussion and what sounds like panicked chatter, concluded by the ringing of an alarm clock (a nightmare may have ended). “It was Don DeLillo, whiskey neat,” are the first phrases in the second song on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and I’m not sure I understand what those words or the rest of the words in “Gold Mine Gutted” mean. The vocal seems both ordinary and that of a distinct social type: an alienated, smart boy; and there is a fluttering beat with a dense orchestral structure beneath the voice. The lines “We were a stroke of luck./ We were a gold mine, they gutted us” are certainly provocative: suggesting natural gifts and exploitation and violence. A life of ordinary youth and distractions—“It was grass stain jeans and incompletes, and a girl from class to touch,/ but you think about yourself too much/ and you ruin who you love” seems to identify what was left behind—and, then, with a witty but far from charming indication of betrayal or self-preservation, the narrator continues: “We hurried to our death./ Well I lagged behind, so you got ahead.” The lyrics are interesting: and what’s lucky for the listener is that the music is much better than that.

In “Arc of Time (Time Code),” a song about choices and plans, curses and praises, time and life and the prospect of resurrection, the vocal is chanted and quickly paced and the song has a brisk, repeated rhythm (a kind of stuttered double beat). It does not remind me of much else that I have been listening to recently.

A personal acquaintance’s withdrawal is questioned in “Down in a Rabbit Hole,” a song that does remind me of certain bands active in the early 1990s, bands that combined delicacy and noise, anxiety and sensuality (was that the sound of young people who knew too much and were unsure of their own values and power?—a question that occurs to me after hearing the recent work of John Mayer: in that way, contemporary work illuminates earlier work and contexts).

A beautiful boy’s dalliance with an older woman seems to have broken his heart and inspired a song that works as memorial and survival tool in “Take It Easy (Love Nothing).” In the song, sounds seem to be exploding in different parts of a room. The song describes a personal relationship but the song seems a very solitary rumination. What’s interesting is the implication of male vulnerability, something that is sometimes obvious with certain young men but which they rarely admit. Social isolation, bitterness, alcohol inebriation, city exhaustion, and self-recrimination are themes in “Hit the Switch.” The mundane considerations—what to do?—are convincing, and verge on the pathetic, and it is that particular pathos that makes the composition hard to dismiss for the picture it paints of a particular life.

In “I Believe in Symmetry,” the singer’s nearly lisping voice suggests someone being overwhelmed, rushing to get the words out, and the words are an exploration of a single life—marriage, a baby, and that child’s growth and new choices—and there’s an attempt to enlarge the theme of the song and to embrace knowledge and instinct:

An argument for consciousness
The instinct of the blind insect
Who makes love to the flower bed
And dies in the first freeze
Oh I want to learn such simple things
No politics, no history
Till what I want and what I need
Can finally be the same

Such a brave and ambitious (and possibly inevitably failing) attempt at mastery of spirit and knowledge may lead to nothing more than that “You give to the next one. You give to the next on down the line.”

“Devil in the Details,” about indecision and indetermination, echoes with the work of the Beatles and David Bowie: and the line “I saw the future as a cloud” is potent. The narrator wants to be someone’s everything in “Ship in a Bottle,” and in naming all those things he might be—he’s very imaginative—he seems as much a madman as a lover. “Light Pollution” mentions a friend who got the narrator a subscription to Socialist Review and shared music and the song is about the travails of work, unemployment, and the inevitable end of life. In “Theme to Piñata” the narrator says he feels like a piñata and suggests someone take a shot at him—inside is something sweet. (He wants to be in a relationship and is willing to accept the difficulties.)

Does one affirm, then move toward, truth over lie, love over hate, and life over death? (How to make these—and other—choices dynamic, vivid? Present them in art—in books, dance, film, music, painting, and theater. How to emphasize that dualities such as life and death are deeply bound? Explore philosophy.) The constancy of war and the threat of nuclear annihilation create a death logic, an existential situation in which death is a master with many faces, in which death is promise and fear, motivation and method, the ground of value: “Another century spent pointing guns at anything that moves. Sometimes I worry I’ve lost the plot” and “I never dreamed of heaven much until we put him in the ground” and “I set my watch to the atomic clock” says the singer in the Bright Eyes song “Easy/Lucky/Free,” in which the narrator searches for patterns of meaning, and suspects that death is what is easy, lucky, and free.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Howlin’ Wolf, Terence Trent D’Arby, Luther Vandross, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, TV on the Radio, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Ricky Martin, the Rolling Stones, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages ofThe Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” appeared on Offscreen.com, and featured Kathleen Battle, David Bowie, Common, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Yo Yo Ma, and Caetano Veloso. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of IdentityTheory.com. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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