The Hang of Music: The Sun Came Up With **Some** Conclusions…

Hello, and welcome to “Shamefully Late”, where Oz decides that turning things in on time is of lesser importance than a) playing Apollo Justice til 6 in the morning and b) going to Norfolk.

So here I am, days late, talking to you about Bright Eyes’ “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning”. Yup, that’s happening.

The track up there, “At the Bottom of Everything”, was the very first Bright eyes song I ever heard – before I even knew who Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst were. And I feel like I have to know who Conor Oberst is, considering how ubiquitous he is in the american indie folk movement.

Even rarer – I first watched that song along with the music video; something I try not to do. But the video actually fits, in an odd way. The odd homemade quality, the ridiculous juxtaposition of plane crashes and childlike art and birthday parties – it works. The song itself is a very weird thing: one part moralistic short story, two parts hedonistic folk tune – one part incredible optimism, one part harsh cynicism, three parts that feeling you only find at the bottom of a bottle.

You may notice – this is a running theme throughout the album.

Recurring theme on the horizon: INCOMING!!!

You all know how much of a sucker I am for wordplay in songs. Well this album is absolutely full of really great lines and lyrics. It’s obvious Oberst really knows what he’s doing and also that he really cares. It’s a testament to good songwriting that not only does every song contain some great lines, but that all of those lines seem to have a very similar tone and measure.

“And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares/How come you say it like you’re right?”

We Are Nowhere And It’s Now

“I’ll fight like hell/to hide that I’m givin’ up!”

Another Travellin’ Song

“The sun came up with no conclusions”

Road to Joy

That last one actually made me smile a lot. Despite the tone. My line of the album.

These lyrics are all thoughful and smart, and telling of human nature and behaviour. SO WHY DON’T ANY OF THEM MAKE ME SMILE?

Not that making me smile is necessarily the point of good lyrics.The point should be to provide a window into the writer’s head. Which these do. They let me into Oberst’s head, and I kinda wish they didn’t. I mean, I like hopelessness as much as the next guy, but if you’re gonna decorate your mind-house with it, you’re gonna need more colours than just black.

I think Conor Oberst knows this too – and makes a joke about it. After the low, sad and paricularly depressing “First Day of my Life”, he talks of changing his strings, and instantly the track changes to the infinitely cheerier and exactly as pessimistic “Another Travelin’ Song”. Not that I’m unhappy with it – they’re both lovely songs – but I get the feeling that if he wants a change, just the strings won’t be enough. Maybe a whole new guitar. Or perhaps taking up the saxophone.

There are other lyrical features that I like too. For example:

  • “Old Soul Song” is a long and flowing, impressionistic tale of a rebellion against the po-po. And you know how much I like my long, flowing impressionistic tales.
    I like them a lot
    . Otherwise, why else would I listen to Dylan or Show of Hands? If anything, “Old Soul Song” isn’t long or rambly enough.
  • I’m pretty sure that “Lua” is a shot at drug culture. You see, the song talks about Lua, the protagonist’s… girlfriend? … who is described as unhealthily skinny and always running off to the loo. Either she’s got a bad habit, or she’s trying to pretend she’s at two different parties at once.
    Bonus points for repeated references to the moon/moonlight, where Lua is (purportedly) a synonym for Luna, or “moon”.

But I’ve spent all this time talking about the lyrics. I’m a music reviewer – I should put aside at least some time for talking about the music. Well…

Um…

Look, if you don’t know what you’re in for when listening to a Bright Eyes album, there’s not much I can say. There’s nothing out of place, per se, but I find it hard to focus on the music. It’s very simple, and uninvolving. Usually, the music really serves as a platform for the lyrics more than anything. Only on a couple of tracks does the music really serve its own purpose.

All of these songs sound like ending songs. Maybe I’m just used to slow, sad, winding ballad-ish ending tunes. They are quite common, it’s true. But a lot of these would be great to end albums on.

Which is funny, because the last song, “Road to Joy”, is the exact opposite. Not in that it’s a bad song to end on, but in that it’s the **other kind** of ending song – instead of being a subtle, quiet, and sedate finale, “Road to Joy” is the big fist-pumping sort, doing its level best to get you shouting along. If there were a chorus, then I’d be singing along by the end of “Road to Joy”. Instead, then I’ll just enjoy it.

Like the rest of the album, it has a certain kind of refreshing, anti-cynicism. You know – “the world is shit, and we can’t fix anything; so we might as well do what’s fun and right because we’re not dead yet.” Think Frank Turner, but more wrist-slit-ish.

Yeah, but try telling him that…

Don’t get me wrong, there’s something uplifting too about the unrestrained, honesty of his determined defeatist attitude. It’s admirable.

I’ve found reviewing this album hard. Hard because it’s good. The lyrics are interesting and complicated. The music supports them rather than distracts, the structure is interesting on all the songs.

But it’s also bad. It’s quite samey, and the tone is a consistent malaise. This might be easier to cope with, too, if the music weren’t so absent. It’s telling that the first track on the album opens with Oberst drinking and telling us a few minutes of a short story. This is all about the words, and not the music.

And while that may be a style choice, and while a few times the actual music may bring itself up into prominence (the afore mentioned “Road to Joy” and “Another Travellin’ Song”), for the most part I don’t feel that it’s enough, and the album comes off as a little dry and dull because of it.

I don’t like saying this, as I love that it captures the singer’s sentiments so completely, and that they even took the time to do so. But to have good lyrics without good music is just as much a problem as good music without good lyrics.

Damn.

***

For the record, I considered reviewing this along with it’s sister album “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn”, which was released on the same day. But I felt that reviewing two albums at once was a bit of a stretch.

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Posted on June 20, 2012, in Music, The Hang of Music and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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