I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning feels like it should have been created during the great period of protest music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is an alt folk/country album forged in war. Written in the early years of the post-9/11 War on Terror, it’s an indictment of a country trying to anesthetize itself against existential threats with all forms of medication–legal or otherwise. These were the days when the flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers were hidden from view and the President instructed the citizenry to protect their way of life through increased mass consumerism. He even provided tax cuts to augment purchasing power. In his early 20s at the time, Conor Oberst brought his fury and poetry to bear on what he saw as a wayward nation.
Oberst was compared to Dylan because both songwriters were young men when they began making socially conscious folk music. Many cited I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning as proof that Oberst was the voice of his generation. While such a label always carries a heavy burden, the songwriter credits the economic degradation of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska, and the election of George W. Bush as two factors that hastened his political awakening. As he told The New Yorker, “I started getting more interested in how society was put together, and I started writing about that, as opposed to earlier, when I focused more on my own feelings and neuroses.”
Feelings and neuroses make appearances for the hardcore fan, but like the effects and soundscapes of his previous album Lifted, are stripped down. In reaction to that album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning mostly features Oberst’s voice, his guitar, a sparse band and the occasional assist from a trumpet and mandolin. Reproducing his band’s live performances at the time, Oberst ushers listeners into this minimalist effect through the story he tells as a prelude to the album’s first track, “At the Bottom of Everything.”
It’s about a woman on a transoceanic flight to see her fiancé. She tries to start a conversation with the man in the seat beside her to no avail. When a mechanical failure makes it clear that the plane is going to crash, she turns to the man and asks, “Where are we going?” and he starts to sing the song.
Oberst tells the story with a glee that infects the up-tempo pounding of steel strings. “We must take all the medicines too expensive now to sell/ Set fire to the preacher who is promising us Hell/ Into the ear of every anarchist who sleeps but doesn’t dream/ We must sing, we must sing, we must sing.” The verses take us through glimpses of Americana with such a fury that we can only strap in for the ride.
Lyrically and musically, Oberst has a great deal of fun on this album. Although the themes of decay, isolation, and loneliness are quite dire, he juxtaposes it with substantial playfulness. “Train Under Water” is a song about broken promises and disconnection, but it’s sung with the “Glory, glory” rhythm of a jaunty religious folk song.
“Another Travelin’ Song” brings to mind Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” and “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. Lyrics like “Oh, yeah, I dreamt a ship was sinking/ There was people screaming all around/ And I awoke to my alarm clock /It was a pop song, it was playing loud,” again highlights Bright Eyes’ new political bent. For fans of Oberst’s inner feelings and neuroses there is “Lua,” a lament he plays slowly on guitar. The song features some of Oberst’s finest lyrics, as he sings about her heavy heart, “So many stronger men than me/ Have thrown their backs out trying to lift.”
Emmylou Harris lends her gravitas as a folk and country legend to “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” “Another Travelin’ Song” and “Landlocked Blues,” connecting Bright Eyes to Dylan, Gram Parsons and Roy Orbison. Mike Mogis returns as producer and, with this album, forms the permanent core of Bright Eye’s revolving ensemble with
Oberst and multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott.
In some ways I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning feels like it should have been created during the great period of protest music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But it was released in January 2005, just days after the second inauguration of George W. Bush. People say they’ve been “woke” by the results of the last Presidential election. Conor Oberst and his mates at Bright Eyes have been awake a long time.