I'm Wide Awake is essentially a folk album, full of political protest songs cloaked in metaphors that render them timeless. Conor Oberst's acoustic guitar rings cleanly against his voice, which still breaks with emotion, but now breaks in key. I'm Wide Awake is mostly quiet and beautiful melodies, illuminating generational restlessness and disillusionment through folk-song concept choruses, placed within narratives, delivered with half-rhymes and clear images: "You see our wheels that move around as we roll over the ground and all day it seems we have been in-between a past and future town," sings Oberst in "We Are Nowhere and It's Now." "Land-Locked Blues" centers around the line "If you walk away, I'll walk away," and places that idea in situations of love and war. "Lua" is a ballad of the morning after, and "Train Under Water" drips with New York City loneliness, and celebrates it, "singing glory from my high-rise." Even when Oberst is delivering a cliché, he coaxes meaning out of it.
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is, like a great American novel, peopled with characters we recognize in situations we recall, reacting and rebelling and just trying to survive; all the while, the music plays in synch, reaching perfect emotional peaks.
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning's evil twin. Oberst couldn't have been more obvious in his decision to release two albums simultaneously: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning's cover is outfitted in beige, with a red sun on the cover, and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn's is black, with black writing; I'm Wide Awake is warm, acoustic, driven by melody; Digital Ash is metallic, electric, driven by rhythm. Digital Ash, though, should have been packaged in beige, because it's that boring. Overly dramatic intros are glued to uninteresting synth sounds layered over even more uninteresting guitar sounds which lead into predictable choruses.
The record begins with a door opening, creepy breathing noises and even creepier organ chords, and it doesn't get off of the basement floor until the third track: "Arc of Time" is the only song on the record that effectively pulls off the synth sounds rejected by New Order, this because of the emphasis on the vocals and the island-style guitar. It's a tropical oasis in the middle of the Black Sea. The vacation doesn't last long, though; by "Down in a Rabbit Hole," we are back on the tempestuous waves, and while it'd be nice to "Take It Easy," if someone would "Hit the Switch" and send us a "Ship in the Bottle," perhaps the "Devil in the Details" would not be so harsh.
If Digital Ash had been released on its own, perhaps it wouldn't seem so bleak; but as any twin will tell you, comparisons are inevitable. Digital Ash will forever be trying to live up to I'm Wide Awake's shiny hair, straight teeth and good grades.