Nov 22, 2022
By Sean Fennell
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is an album that has always suffered from comparison. Immediately upon its release, it became the second son, the ugly duckling, the silver medalist, the also-ran. Why Bright Eyes decided to release two albums on the same day back in January of 2005 remains a mystery (though I have some theories) but you cannot argue that it had a decidedly negative effect on Digital Ash, a record that had the unfortunate fate of sitting right next to Bright Eyes’ crowning achievement, 2005’s other record I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Which, it turns out, makes it the perfect album for the kind of re-evaluation that is inherent in this project of reimagining their past work.
Which brings us to the “why” of Digital Ash, a question essential to understanding not only the original set of songs on the record but this new companion EP. Releasing two full-length albums in a single day is, was, and will always be a kind of absurd endeavor, one that makes little sense financially and, in my opinion, artistically. But Digital Ash was more than a collection of tacked-on songs. It was an intentional effort to show a side of Bright Eyes and, in turn, its lead man Conor Oberst, that has not been on display. Oberst was known for passionate, heart-wrenching, immediate bedroom folk. Intentionally shaggy in nature, these were songs with little adornment. Digital Ash, as its name suggests, was something far more produced, incorporating electronic embellishments in a way that would have seemed antithetical to Bright Eyes’ earlier albums.
The companion EP undoes all that, taking songs like “Hit the Switch” and “Arc of Time (Time Code)” and reworking their arrangements in a way that would have them fit more snugly on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, fleshing out the folkier aspects of the songs and adding things like harmonica and slide guitar to the equation. What makes this such a rewarding experiment and, to me, the best of the companion EPs, is the focus it puts on the songs themselves. In hindsight, all the Kid A-inspired electronic flourishes were not the most effective way to highlight Oberst’s songwriting skills. Look, I get it, he wanted to play in a different sandbox, but you cannot deny how well these songs work within a more typically “Bright Eyes” formula. (www.thisisbrighteyes.com)
Author rating: 8/10
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