From the first sip of water on “At the Bottom of Everything,” we’re invited into an intimate, unsteady world. That’s the effect of Conor Oberst’s voice—tremulous and trailing alongside melody, the vulnerability bleeds through.
This song opens Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, which turns 15 on Saturday, Jan. 25. Although it was released alongside the experimental Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, I’m Wide Awake firmly cemented itself as an essential, individual piece of the mid-aughts indie canon. Oberst’s music extends the legacy of artists like Elliott Smith, combining whispery, emotion-wrenched vocals with diary-esque lyrics that straddle traditional folk and harsh rock.
By combining hallmarks of both genres, I’m Wide Awake comes across both cutting and gentle, honest and surreal. As much as it followed traditions developed by Smith, Daniel Johnston, and even Bob Dylan, it also advanced the genre with its own intimacy, uncanny lyrics, and genre-twisting. A series of anti-war anthems surrounded by desperate love songs, the album resonates today because it captures a time eerily resonant to our own.
Oberst’s many narrators live among riots and war, treading the line between action and inaction, reality and an inability to grasp it: He goes to a rally, but the protestors are a “they,” not a “we”; he compares flowers to a wall of TVs; he’s “shot dead” by a kid whose gun is a tree branch and won’t make a truce. In the face of violence, Oberst’s characters remain the outsiders, touched but inexorably impotent, whether watching a lover print riot photos in a darkroom or dreaming of “the desert where the dead lay down.” I’m Wide Awake was written in the shadow of the Iraq war, which draws a jarring parallel to the U.S.’s recent assasination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, not to mention today’s nationwide protests highlighting everything from climate change to womens’ rights.
It’s the contrast between war and pained love that truly evokes a narrator isolated in all aspects of existence. I’m Wide Awake reminds us that in times of war and protest, our inner lives suffer, too. As Oberst sings in “Poison Oak”: “Now I’m drunk as hell on a piano bench / And when I press the keys, it all gets reversed / The sound of loneliness makes me happier.”
The album is an attempt to make sense of violence, loneliness and pain. At the same time, Oberst realizes there’s communion among the isolated. That’s part of the reason I’m Wide Awake was so lauded upon release: It felt immediate and intimate, and its loneliness was all too relatable. The malaise was relatable too: In a time of war, where we don’t live near the front lines and it’s hard to feel like protests make a difference, does any action matter? As Oberst sang, thoroughly disillusioned and snarky: “When you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing / It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win.”
I’m Wide Awake never reveals itself through its lyrics; any explicit story gets overturned in part by surreal imagery, and any tale that starts in one place finds itself moving elsewhere. That perhaps is Bright Eyes’ greatest legacy, which pulled so much from folk predecessors: telling a story without telling us quite what it’s about.
When you look at Paste’s top 50 indie rock albums of the past decade, you see Oberst’s successors: Lucy Dacus (who’ll open for Bright Eyes on their 2020 reunion tour), Phoebe Bridgers—a co-collaborator with Oberst under the name Better Oblivion Community Center —and Courtney Barnett are three examples of prolific female artists whose work in some respect pays homage to I’m Wide Awake, whether it’s songs about isolation, meandering lyrics, or macabre, folk-inspired instrumentation (this, of course, does not imply any lack of talent or individuality).
As Bright Eyes’ influence proliferates today, Phoebe Bridgers’ first album, Stranger in the Alps, comes to mind. Before her collaboration with Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center, Bridgers brought him in to sing on one of the album’s tracks, “Would You Rather.” He joins her for the chorus: “Come to find out / I’m a can on a string, you’re on the end / We found our way out / Of the suicide pact of our family and friends.”
Not only does it sound like the two escaped hardships together, but the lyrics also call back to I’m Wide Awake’s “Poison Oak,” where Oberst sings: “When our telephone was a tin can on a string.” In many ways, I’m Wide Awake is a can on a string, and musicians like Bridgers are pressing their ears to the metal on the other end, hearing what fragments they can from the past and taking them into the future.