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Taking his leave
Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst finds life elsewhere

If you’ve ever been to Omaha, you understand why Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst has spent the last 10 years being so damn depressed. The Nebraska city where the warbling wunderkind was born is a spacious expanse of strip malls and parking lots, both so vast you’d swear they could house the entire population of China. The Red Staters tend to be so conservatively provincial, they wouldn’t know a double entendre if it licked them in the face. No one blinks at the name of local convenience-store chain Kum & Go; and when, more than a year ago, Omaha’s Chamber of Commerce tried to promote itself by adopting the simple symbol "O!", it was shocked when a local sex shop appropriated the symbol for a billboard. Also, Oberst is vegan, and his home town is all about dead animals: the land of the juicy steak once tried to market itself with the slogan "Omaha: Rare, Well-Done," and even the few hipster bars around have stuffed game heads mounted on the walls. But mostly, the problem with Omaha is that it behaves like a small town. "There is only one good use for a small town," Lou Reed once reasoned. "You hate it and you’ll know you have to leave."

Oberst, who comes to Harvard’s Sanders Theatre this Monday, is damn good at leaving. In early 2003, he fled Omaha for New York City, a relocation that New York magazine described as tantamount to "Faulkner leaving Oxford for Atlanta." He still has ties: he keeps a house, remains with his home-town über-indie-label Saddle Creek, and uses his own Lower East Side–based record label, the syrupy-sounding Team Love, as a platform to elevate Omaha-based acts like Tilly and the Wall, a tap-dancing fivesome who’ll open for him at Sanders, and hip-hop beatsman Mars Black.

But Oberst doesn’t just leave places, he leaves people — or so he claims on his two new releases, the acoustic I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and the electric Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, both on Saddle Creek and both hitting shelves this Tuesday. "I’m not a gamble/You can count on me to split," he whispers on "Lua," the first single from Wide Awake that floated like a helium balloon to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart this past November, side by side with Oberst’s Digital Ash single, "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," another meditation on leaving and being left. It was the first time since August 1997 that one artist held the #1 and #2 positions — and that’s even more surprising when you consider that this wimpy indie kid had to push off Usher and Alicia Keys to be king of the Billboard mountain.

Since Wide Awake was the first of the two to be laid to tape, Oberst is heading out to support that one now. Then he’s planning to tour again on behalf of Digital Ash, with fellow Omahans the Faint as his backing band. On the folkie, stripped-down Wide Awake leg, he’s towing collaborators Mike Mogis, Merge Records’ M. Ward, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. There are no announced plans to have Wide Awake’s marquee-name guest star, Emmylou Harris (Loretta Lynn to Oberst’s Jack White on three songs), accompany him on any dates. There’s also no word on whether Digital Ash’s guest stars, high-cheekboned guitarist Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who appears on five songs, and the Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello, who leaves his fingerprints all over "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," will be touring as Bright Eyes.

Oberst — who turns 25 on February 15 ("One day too late for love," as he told Rolling Stone in 2002) — recorded both Wide Awake and Digital Ash after his relocation. The distance from home appears to have temporarily alleviated his depression: the pixie-thin "boy wonder" with a knotted-cord necklace sounds more at ease with himself than ever before. He’s still tormented, of course; his songs continue to be revealing therapy sessions ("I’m thinking of quitting drinking again," he confesses in Digital Ash’s "Hit the Switch"), but his intimate admissions come across more like unyielding introspection than get-me-out-of-here distress signals. There are even two hopeful ballads: "First Day of My Life," Wide Awake’s folky testament to love’s ability to renew ("This time I think it’s different/I really think you like me"), and a mechanized steel-drum number called "The Piñata Song" buried at the end of Digital Ash.

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Issue Date: January 21 - 27, 2005
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