Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

We take all of the medicines too expensive now to sell.

Twice in the last week I’ve been waiting at the hardware store and have had the person beside me strike up a conversation – a uniquely terrifying proposition at any time, and even more so considering our current circumstances. Both of these people wanted to talk about the thing everyone wants to talk about nowadays, which is fine if you move past the initial horror of them deciding they needed to proclaim their thoughts to whoever was closest to them. However, what was less fine was the specifics they wanted to discuss. The first person was convinced that the coronavirus was sowed intentionally by some shady government (Chinese, American, Illuminati? He was unclear) in order to reset the world’s currency. A cursory glance at this idea, which I’d never heard of before, points to the US losing its status as reserve currency to some other world superpower. It seems, shall we say, less than plausible that a global health crisis was manufactured to accelerate the decline of a waning empire, especially as we watch the USA throw itself into its own Crisis of the Third Century while their political elite conspire to ensure the country never finds its Diocletian.

The second person was less concerned about economics and more about biology. “There’s no way the government will make me take that vaccine,” he said. “You can have mine for me.” He went on to explain that in the 80s, drug giant Pfizer had successfully lobbied the American (and Canadian? again, unsure) government to classify their vaccines as ‘biologics’ instead of medicine in order to circumvent some unknown health and safety requirements. The motive was unclear. Perhaps poison or mind control or any of the other myriad conspiracies about governmental control.

In typical millennial fashion, I offered absolutely zero resistance to these suggestions. “Yes, interesting,” I would say as I nodded. “I’ll look into that.” But what struck me when I mercifully exited each conversation wasn’t that these people were insane or dangerous, it’s how damn close they are to being right. There might not be a shady cabal conspiring to release a virus to take down the United States, but take a look at how many famous people are connected to deceased pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and tell me that the Illuminati, in some form, doesn’t exist. Sure, Pfizer isn’t injecting mind control drugs into their vaccines, but they are spending billions of dollars a year to successfully lobby lawmakers into keeping drug prices artificially high, surely killing many thousand in the process.

And in this endless race for property and privilege to be won, we must run, we must run, we must run.

To our south, the people in charge of the government are openly disdainful of those who elected them, and take joy in using those people as pawns in their quest for infinite money and power. All it takes to keep them in line is the fear of some unseen other, whether that’s people of colour, or people who are non-gender conforming, or shadowy authoritarians taking away your freedom not to protect against a highly transmissible virus but to shackle you for eternity. These people are so good at creating illusions that they cause people to take up arms, to protest against actions taken in their interest, to harass and even kill people who have far more in common with them than the bureaucrats in their offices. Tell me that isn’t textbook chaos magic at work. Even here, our dynastic leader comes up with a new legislative acronym every day in order to avoid the scrutiny that comes with simply providing people with the money they need to survive. The shortcomings of our world have come into sharp relief in the last few months, for sure.

We must blend into the choir, sing as static with the whole.

The point of all of this is that a healthy cynicism of the rich and powerful is good and proper. You don’t have to believe that Bill Gates is micro-chipping people to think he’s a bad person who is obsessed with playing God. But this cynicism comes with unique challenges and dangerous repercussions if one isn’t careful, the results of which I saw on a small scale in these conversations and which are playing out on a much larger scale all over the world. It’s necessary, now more than ever, to be careful about what you believe, to be critical of what you’re told, and to ensure that you sidestep all the grifters and witch doctors and doomsayers that come with the territory. One wrong turn down the rabbit hole, one faulty iteration of the algorithm, a misaligned starting point or boundary condition and suddenly you’re not someone who holds the powerful accountable, but rather a loon, a kook, a full blown conspiracy theorist.

What side you fall on regarding this issue is influenced by a number of factors, but as we’ve heard increasingly loudly, the media you consume may be the most important. Obviously, lived experience is also incredibly influential but as someone who has had a privileged life, my radicalization comes more from learning about experiences of those who are marginalized and oppressed. But ever more frequently, even the voices who report on these experiences and speak truth to power are being shut out, whether through their evisceration by private equity ghouls (RIP Splinter, the Outline, the Awl, and most of all Deadspin), altered so as to be unrecognizable (Sports Illustrated, new and bad Deadspin), through mass layoffs of talented staff (VICE, The Atlantic), or through amalgamation of media by large right-wing conglomerates.

One area that has managed to keep and grow its voice, however, is independent music. Obviously, music has been an important vehicle of protest for decades, from the civil rights activism of Sam Cooke through pacifism of CCR and the stalwart anti-fascism of the Dead Kennedys to Solange’s contemporary observations on racism and segregation.

Into the caverns of tomorrow with just our flashlights and our love, we must plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge.

Now, I don’t pretend to be deeply knowledgeable about the history of political music, and I missed a ton of important artists above, but this is a personal blog, right (and look, I’m finally getting to the music)? And personally, the album that showed me that music could be political without being corny and started to shape many of the ideas that I still hold to this day was Bright Eyes’ tender and tired slice of Americana I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.

Cover art for I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning depicting Brooklyn brownstones in the early morning.

Prior to listening to “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” in full, I had heard of Bright Eyes and enjoyed some of his songs. Someone at my high school’s talent show performed ‘Arienette’ (from Bright Eyes’ deeply wounded sophomore effort “Fevers and Mirrors”) a capella and I remember searching for the original and downloading it from Limewire (of course). The imagery in the song is surreal, tying emotions to animals and plunging you headlong into the cold Nebraska night. But the first thing you notice about Bright Eyes is Conor Oberst’s (Bright Eyes lead singer and bandleader) voice; piercing and vibrating like he’s on the verge of crying at any moment. It’s a magnetic instrument that people find equally attractive and repulsive, and it’s on full display during the spare ‘Arienette.’ At the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I could get past the voice, and I was never a person who struggled with more unique types of voices. But after checking out a few more songs, I was fully onboard. The first song I found after ‘Arienette’ was the jaunty ‘Bowl of Oranges’ (from “LIFTED”) and the second, the one that cemented my status as a Bright Eyes fan, was ‘Lua.’

I spoke at length above about Bright Eyes shaping some of my politics, but that’s not what drew me to them in the first place. ‘Lua’ is a deeply personal song about two lovers intertwined by addiction while New York City hangs like a spectre in the background, sung barely above a whisper. It’s crushing and gorgeous and sometimes hard to listen to, and one of the best songs of the previous decade.

Much of the beauty of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning comes from its ability to deftly weave together the personal and political, sometimes within the same song, playing them off of each other to great effect. Opener ‘At the Bottom of Everything’ begins with the traditional Bright Eyes spoken word intro, this time concerning a woman in a plane crash (I’ve never really understood it, but it’s fun to do the ‘I love you very very… very much’ part). Once the music starts, though, Oberst gets political immediately: ‘We must memorize nine numbers and deny we have a soul.’ Maybe this scans as a bit Tumblr-core photo caption to you, but remember it the next time you get 10 machine-generated rejection letters from jobs you desperately need. Oberst has always been one to wear his heart on his sleeve and speak his politics proudly (see him namecheck George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger on this great live performance from the Late Late Show), and coupled those two things provide the album with a sense of purpose and scope while keeping it intimate when it needs to be.

Every song on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is immediately striking, both in its music and its lyrics. Emmylou Harris shows up to lend gravitas to the smeared cityscape of ‘We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,’ which feels like a still-life painting of rainy downtown street. ‘First Day of My Life’ is one of the most beautiful love songs committed to tape, buoyed by interlocking acoustic guitars and the sound of joy in Oberst’s voice.

The defining feeling of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, though, isn’t anger or love but rather loneliness, and more specifically the loneliness that comes from distance both physical and emotional. ‘Old Soul Song’ tells a story of a photojournalist sent to cover a protest and ties it to the loneliness caused from being at a remove from the cause of the demonstration, the song’s strings playing the part of the shifting crowd. The rollicking ‘Another Travelin’ Song,’ perhaps my favourite on the album, is all about movement and distance both physical (‘Now the ocean speaks and spits/And I can hear it from the interstate/And I’m screaming at my brother on a cell phone/He is far away’) and temporal (‘Oh, and morning’s at my window/And she is sending me to bed again/Well, I dreamed a dark on the horizon/I dreamed a desert where the dead lay down’). The final three songs exist in the shadow of a war both unnecessary and costly — ‘Land Locked Blues’ speaks of dreams and motion as ways of escape, and ‘Poison Oak’ is childhood nostalgia filtered through the hardships of adulthood. And last, the incredible ‘Road to Joy’ cribs Beethoven’s melody for a raucous shout-along about moving through a world both terrifying and infuriating while trying to balance the contradictions in your mind. As the song wanes, the Oberst and the band are finally overcome. Oberst screams of a cacophony of drums, horns, and strings, releasing all of the emotions the album built over the last 45 minutes. Sometimes, when the world seems insane, it’s the only thing you can do.

writin about music mostly | contact me alex.ml.toth@gmail.com

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