Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is as experimental as Bright Eyes gets.
2005 saw the release of not one but two Bright Eyes albums, and both of them happened to be a departure from the norm. Of the pair, however, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn was the furthest, out-of-left-field, record Conor Oberst and company released and remains so to this day. Instead of acoustic guitar-driven, indie-turned-folk music, Digital Ash offered layers of electronic soundscapes, programed beats, myriad instrumentation and, of course, Oberst’s classic lyrical laments. While this record is certainly the oddball of the Bright Eyes’ catalogue, it cemented the group as a fearless batch of musicians willing to stretch the limits of their talents to make something truly unique. And the results are spectacular.
Digital Ash opens with “Time Code,” a track that is at first reminiscent of the opener of 2002’s Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground in that it begins as background noise, a few notes, some breathing. But then it’s washed in sizzling electronics that are as disorienting as they are beautiful. Truly, it’s a bridge between the old and the new, indicating that, no, this is nothing you’ve heard before from Bright Eyes. This is followed by a more traditional song insomuch as it has a discernible structure. “Gold Mine Gutted” could be a standard Bright Eyes tune if it weren’t swimming in synths and blanketed in a layer of ethereal programming. It’s a primer of sorts: If “Time Code” asks its listeners to prepare themselves for newness, “Gold Mine Gutted” takes them by the hand and slowly pulls them into this lovely fever dream of an album.
“Arc of Time (Time Code),” however, offers the truest taste of the album. Here the drums are thick with electricity and could be danced to if the circumstances were right. (A dark room, a blacklight making everyone’s teeth glow, smoke above and in your head, a whiskey drink in hand.) It’s a happy little tune with a dark message—by no means a stretch for Oberst—but with the layers of electrics, it’s quite a standout. By contrast, “Down in a Rabbit Hole” is the dingy living room after the party. That’s not to say the song is a misstep, but rather its darkness, mood, and post covered-in-snow comedown mixed with the string arrangements, static and feedback, make it the Empire Strikes Back to “Arc of Time (Time Code)”’s A New Hope—even if the former isn’t particularly uplifting.
“Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” is a sexy, static-filled, palm muted tune perfectly happy and miserable at once. Its beat stalls and sputters while the synthesizers take the wheel. It’s the anti-summer love song, just upbeat enough to allow the sad, sorry lyrics to ball up a fist for a huge gut-punch. “Hit the Switch” features nearly every instrument mentioned thus far, but includes some acoustic guitar and a folksy drumbeat that is an incredible blend of this version of Bright Eyes and the one featured on Digital Ash’s companion album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
The second half of Digital Ash continues with all the threads heard previously above, making for a musical novel of sorts. Between “I Believe in Symmetry” and “Devil in the Details” you get another sequence of songs that offer a sense of light and darkness reminiscent of the doubts clouding what most certainly will be a doomed marriage, each met with the regret that maybe the whole venture was a mistake. For some rock ‘n’ roll mixed with the album’s through-line, see “Light Pollution” with its layers and layers of sound. “Theme to Pinata” is, for lack of a better description, an anti-Jimmy Buffet tune that won’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy on a beach.
Digital Ash ends with “Easy/Lucky/Free” which is as fitting a closer as “Time Code” was an opener. It’s slow, sad and subtle, but with everything the entirety of the album featured. Think of it as the closing number to the image that began with “Arc of Time (Time Code)”. If you could imagine an album fading out like the last frame of a film just before its credit roll, this is it. It features Oberst pleading to a friend (or is it a lover?), “But don’t you weep/ Don’t you weep/ There’s no one as lucky/ Honey, don’t you weep/ Don’t you weep/ There’s nothing as lucky as easy or free.” All the while the synths soothe, the drums roll and the soundscape sizzles before fading into formless noise and coming to an abrupt end.
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is as experimental as Bright Eyes gets. And, just to make sure this thing stays special, they never did anything like it again. Twelve years later, it stands at the top of Bright Eyes’ career as a defining moment; they dug deep, tried anything they wanted to and made an album that is truly special. While Digital Ash may not define their style, it defines Bright Eyes as one of those special bands who are unafraid to try something new. And with the finished product, it’s clear that attempt paid off nicely.