Conor Oberst dreams big. The Bright Eyes mastermind tortures copy editors with humility-raping album titles like Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep your Ear to the Ground. He has foolishly believed, for the last decade, that his fans would forgive his on-record temper-tantrums and his humiliating lyrical turns so long as he sounds huge and important. For an underground artist, he has been accused of many heinous things: He’s arrogant (true); he’s a wunderkind fuck up (probably); he’s a scene-making prima donna (better than even odds); and he’s a young hack songwriter with a goofy warble and childish lyrics (debatable).

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You make Morrisey look like John McClane.

On the other hand, he has admirably stuck by his hometown label Saddle Creek, spurning big offers from the majors. When the singles from his new albums hit numbers one and two on the Billboard Singles chart last month, he was instantly anointed indie-rock’s brightest hope, an artist capable of maintaining underground credibility while racking up record sales. Oberst, for his part, has accepted the role of the romantic songwriting genius of his generation with suspiciously little hesitation. Conor Oberst is thoroughly convinced that Conor Oberst is the great underground hope.

Oberst also thinks he can get away with going all Guns ’n’ Roses on us, releasing two albums on one day: one of them a mostly acoustic, singer/songwriter exercise, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the other a decidedly more electric/eclectic full-band set, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Oberst dreams big, sure, and up until now, he has failed at least half the time. In truth, this double-album jaunt is a lose/lose proposition, philosophically. The Americana credibility he openly desires on Wide Awake is undermined by his urge to go electronic on Digital. His experimental digs on Digital are damned as posturing by his Awake’s traditional ethos. Add to this the growing weight of every rock critic’s “next big thing” and the “sellout” whispers that are starting to pass among longtime fans, and Oberst is off to a rocky start, at best.

This is why the rant that opens I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is puzzling. Surely, nothing this ham-handedly ridiculous, nothing this stutteringly amateur would be allowed to kick off Oberst’s big breakthrough. He tells a story of a woman on a crashing plane, comforted by a stranger who tells her that they’re headed toward her birthday party, that “we all love you very, very, very, very, very much!” Oberst sounds unrehearsed; his voice cracks. You can bet that this sort of half-baked romanticism will not show up whenever Death Cab for Cutie gets around to releasing that major label debut.

Despite the intro, Wide Awake fares remarkably well. “At the Bottom of Everything” jumps out from story time as Oberst’s most clever Dylan rip yet, which isn’t a problem in the least: If anything has been learned over the course of Oberst’s last few albums, it’s that he’s best when he goes all Blonde on Blonde on everyone.

Sure, there are missteps — the lyrical miscues of “Old Soul Song” come immediately to mind — but this is a concertedly more even effort than anyone is used to hearing from Oberst. “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” makes good on its melancholic promise, while “Another Travelin’ Song” transcends its abhorrent title. The slo-mo cinema of “Land Locked Blues” is one of Oberst’s best ballads.

Oberst officially hits his stride with “Poison Oak.” He runs through a few rhyming bars with nothing but an acoustic guitar, but by the time the band kicks in, his swinging melody looks up proudly and the lyrics seem, for the first time, like Oberst’s pushing square pegs into square holes. When he announces, among glorious pedal steel and whapping cymbals, that he’s, “drunk as hell / on a piano bench,” the drama is palpable and believable. It’s a rousing, sad time, even if he fumbles around like a nervous virgin on the very next track, doing the critics’ dirty work for them: “I could have been a famous singer / If I had someone else’s voice / But failure’s always sounded better / Let’s fuck it up boys, make some noise.”

Digital Ash should be the bombastic soul-mate to Wide Awake, where Oberst drums up some electric guitars and “rocks out.” Instead, he bathes his pop-rock tunes in enough keyboards and drum machines to nab some Cure comparisons. The album starts strongly, with “Time Code” emerging from the, ahem, digital ash as a slight, minimal pop song. “Gold Mine Gutted” overcomes an awkward chorus with a chiming melody.

The rest of the disc is far less assured, switching between the downhill sugar rush of “Arc of Time” and the unbearably middle-of-the-road art-rock of “Hit the Switch.” “Light Pollution” survives on a strong narrative, but “Theme from Pinata” rehashes older work, succumbing to trite lyrics and a boring melody. On the whole, Digital Ash sounds like a string of mostly failed experiments. Nabbing Postal Service beatmaker Jimmy Tamborello seems more like a publicity plea than spirited collaboration. Digital Ash is different, to be sure, but it’s also uneven, forced and predictable.

Oberst should be congratulated for releasing two albums for which critics can’t pull out the old, “There’s only one album of good material here” blather. It’s true, of course, it’s just that the one album of good material would be a disjointed, rotten affair. Oberst makes great strides here, even when he stumbles. He’s toned down the tantrums, learned a little restraint and his good lyric/bad lyric ratio sees the sunny side of 1.0 for the first time ever. He even seems to realize how subpar Digital Ash is, as he saves all his jaw-droppers for the considerably fresher Wide Awake.

In the end, Oberst’s heart still outpaces his brain. Both discs suffer from weak tracks, childish rhymes and unbecoming amounts of confidence. Both discs end with fits of ruptured noise, as if Oberst is standing on a bully pulpit screaming, “Hey! Kids! Entropy!” He still has a long way to go as an artist, but Wide Awake and Digital Ash have enough lucid moments and exciting climaxes to suggest, for the first time, that Oberst is destined for more than cult status. The countdown to his first great album starts here.

 

I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning: 3.5 stars

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn: 2 stars

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