The only thing not found in New York City is a place to breath. The city suffocates with its immense vastness. Delis, franchise megastores, and other little shops line the endless row of streets. Just when the day appears over and things might actually quiet down, the florescent lights turn on and everything gets just as insane as midday, if not crazier. Now take Conor Oberst, country bumpkin from Omaha, Nebraska and put him in the middle of the bustling city. Well, everyone knows how that story goes, but with a mind like Conor's, he creates an entire album based on this experience and his time in New York City.
Despite New York City being everything but country, this album reaches as close to country that Conor has ever approached. Conor sticks to his acoustic and singing only, but his right hand man Mike Mogis plays all the instruments needed to add a country feel to an acoustic song. The songs range from acoustic ballads to country pop to variations on Beethoven's Ode to Joy. However, the first thing an experienced Bright Eyes listener will notice on this album is the improvement of Conor's voice. His voice sounds much more set out for a country feel than the grandiose arrangements on Lifted. Also worth noting are the fantastic vocals from Emmylou Harris, the country legend herself. She harmonizes and compliments Conor's voice extremely well.
The album opens with At the Bottom of Everything. The song starts with just Conor speaking. The tone of his voice makes the listener feel he is right in front of them, and the two are having a conversation. Conor tells a story about two complete strangers on a plane set to crash. The man remains optimistic, if not a bit delusional, throughout the entire experience, while the woman just remains confused. Conor launches into the tune with a "1, 2, 1 2 3 4" and Conor, his guitar, and a mandolin begin the uptempo assault on society. Conor, always producing excellent lyrics, does not disappoint on this song, delivering some of his greatest lines ever written. His voice takes its trademark melancholic tone, juxtaposing with the vibrant and almost happy sounding mandolin. The chorus makes vocal harmonies between Conor and Mike Mogis, which are a bit lacking as Mogis' voice quality is terrible. An instrumental bridge showcasing a guitar solo after Conor says the plane has crashed into the sea. The song goes through another verse and chorus, with the chorus lyrics changed a bit. The song leaves with a fantastic line "I'm happy just because I found out I am really no one." The main chord progression takes the song out.
The next standout, Lua,, is the simplest on the album and found Conor commercial success, peaking at #1 on the US Billboard charts. The song is just Conor and his guitar. Even if one doesn't pay attention to the lyrics, the song just sounds depressing. Conor's tone of disappointment and unease in his voice and the hesitant guitar paint a picture of severe depression. The song sings about Conor and a girl going to a party. They get wasted, and Conor sings about the experience. Comparisons are made to the thought process in the evening and what reality brings in the morning. The music is simple, revolving around a few chord progressions. A few nuances, most noticeably the surprise chord 20 seconds before the end, make the song not sound too simple and easy. The song made teenage girls scream everywhere, and still is a truly excellent song, full of pure emotion.
Land Locked Blues, another easy-going, simple song starts with just Conor and his guitar again. He sings a verse, going through the chord progression twice. At about 40 seconds, Emmylou Harris joins in to harmonize with him. Emmylou's vocals are excellent, starting at a low alto range, but throughout she reaches a bit higher. While she never stands out above Conor, she makes a welcome addition to Conor's voice. Their rhythms don't always match up, but it's these little things that make the song surprisingly human and heartfelt. The main lyrical theme of the song is "If you walk away, I'll walk away." Conor manages to get in a few political stabs, with lines like "We made love on the living room floor, with the noise in the background from a televised war. And in the deafening pleasure, I thought I heard someone say if we walk away, they'll walk away." After many verses, and just past the 4 minute mark, a trumpet enters playing a variation on Taps. It makes a sly reference to the death of class and society, just the type of thing Conor would be expected to do. The song goes through some more verses and closes out on the root chord.
Just as strongly as the album opened, it closes with the same greatness. Road to Joy starts with a two note guitar riff, which then expands into the theme from Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Many instruments are featured here, including a full drum set, multiple guitars, and an organ. The verse is entirely based on the Beethoven theme. The chorus brings the drums to play a military style beat. This type of music may have been what Commander Venus, Conor's band before Bright Eyes, became. The song goes through another verse and chorus, showcasing great lyrics as always. Once again, Conor makes some political inferences, the most noticeable being "So when you're asked to fight a war that’s over nothing, it's best to join the side that's gonna win. And no one is sure how all of this got started, but we're gonna make 'em goddamn certain how it's gonna end. Oh yeah we will! Oh yeah! We will!"After the chorus, the song leaves the guitar and bass dropped out while organ and bass drum stay and Conor sings the verse by himself, before surprisingly saying "Let's f*ck it up boys, make some noise!" At this point, all chaos breaks loose. The drums become very heavy, a trumpet appears and plays a distant solo. Distorted guitar can be heard, and then the whole band joins to play the Ode to Joy theme, and letting one last chaotic 20 seconds finish off the album.
I'm Wide Awake, I's Morning is one of Conor's landmark achievements, getting him to work with Jenny Watson and many other country artists, most noticeably on Bob Dylan covers. Comparisons continue to be made between the two, most noticeably in the lyrics and sly references and criticisms to society.
At The Bottom of Everything
First Day of My Life
Land Locked Blues
Road to Joy