Dusting ‘Em Off: Bright Eyes – Digital Ash in a Digital Urn


Before the spirit of Bob Dylan took over this puberty ridden angst case, Conor Oberst fulfilled his role as the “go to” guy for self exploration in times of despair and heartbreak. With Bright Eyes, Oberst utilized the same mediums that Elliott Smith or Nick Drake had in the past, only he seemed less vague about it. He screamed when he felt it necessary, and he cried when most would wait ’til the door was closed. While many will argue otherwise, it was with the early 2005 dual release of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning that the Omaha native creatively peaked. He put everything out there… his bare bones and his clean shoes. What more could fans ask for?

Here you had a choice: Either an album full of mournful songs swallowed in digital synth (A Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) or  a personal biography of songs that are akin to Oberst’s Omaha country life (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning). Either way, you were left satisfied with you’re decision.

Yet, when both of these records were released simultaneously, media seemed to focus on the latter of the two. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning became a critical darling overnight, while A Digital Ash in a Digital Urn rode shotgun as the bastard son. This is what pisses me off.

This record was ignored because it was experimental and it strayed away from the traditional path in which Bright Eyes was going down. This is the case with every record that has some experimental influences, it’s either heavily ignored or pushed aside for bitter judgement. But let’s focus on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn as the promised son. Be forewarned I am one for lyrics.

The record opens up as any other Bright Eyes album would, with the staged dramatics. With Digital Ash, it’s a bit eerie, utilizing hard noise, long brush sounds, and heavy breathing, all followed by a ticking clock that perfectly ties in to the next track ,“Gold Mine Gutted”. The album’s first true song,  it speaks of self empathy and a love lost through its wasted time. Ah, now the introduction makes sense.

If you dwell on an album for too long, it becomes less an entity of music and moreover a textbook with too many questions that can never be answered. What I’ve come to realize about most of Oberst’s work, however, is that these opening tracks of casual noise are placed on each album for a reason and that is to set the mood. The mood of A Digital Ash in a Digital Urn would be the elements within hope, despair, and one’s longing for self revival.

The one track that summarizes this idea, and pretty much the entirety of the album’s theme, can be found in the centerfold, that being “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)”. Not only is this song the catchiest track of the dozen, with its roaring guitar and robot sweeping drums, but it holds some of the most visual and honest lyrics:

Now I do as I please and lie through my teeth

Someone might get hurt, but it won’t be me

I should probably feel cheap but I just feel free…

One cannot help but feel the self righteousness Oberst pours into this song. And it feels like it’s just for you, the listener, as if he’s written this to ensure that you keep moving on through the tough times, with your chin held up high and saying “Fuck you” to anyone in the process. For that, you have to sit back and say, “Kudos.”

Bittersweet yet twisted metaphors, in addition to crying babies, keep up a brilliant rhythm in the astounding “Ship in a Bottle”. There is a certain “cool” about this song that is different for everybody and to me it’s the crying baby that is the bridge of the song. To others it might be the aforementioned metaphors:

I wanna be the surgeon that cuts you open,

That fixes all of life’s mistakes

Either way, anybody and everybody can find a piece of this song to love and cherish just as they can on the next track, “Light Pollution”.

“Light Pollution” speaks of rebellion, the horrors of imperialism, and John A. Hobson, critic of such a failed endeavor. This is, by far, the most emotional song on the record, and one that should find its way into anyone’s heart, which comes off as sort of ironic given its upbeat attitude. Yet the melancholy story, about a world run by digits and materialistic possessions and how ideals such as these should be thrown away, will only make you despise whatever you carry and rely upon on a day-to-day basis.

At any angle you peer into this album, disappointment should be last on your list of judgment. There’s just too much to discover and inherit. With Bright Eyes coming out with a record in due time, I can only hope it resembles the experimentation taken upon this album. Until then, dust the ash off this record (pun intended) and give it a spin. Maybe two or three times. It sort of warrants that.