Conor Oberst isn’t a kid anymore. Technically speaking, he hasn’t been for quite a while, but part of Bright Eyes’ charm and intrigue once came from Oberst’s own youth. After getting used to the doe-eyed, well-coiffed handsome young man whose sensitive and witty beyond his years lyrics caused many a young girl to shriek in excitement (I’m not exaggerating, I’ve seen it first hand), it’s a bit hard to know what to make of Oberst circa 2007, hair long and scraggily, looking more like Neil Young or J. Mascis than one might have thought possible. He’s even stated in interviews that his drunken, hard-partying ways could be coming to an end, or at the very least, slowing down.
Looks and blood alcohol content aside, Oberst sounds more weathered and worn on Bright Eyes’ latest album, Cassadaga, and it’s much to his benefit. Just as the `new Dylan’ label has been all but shaken off, Oberst returns with his most Dylan-like (or more accurately, Band-like) album to date. Mostly a rousing, rich-sounding country/folk-rock affair, it finds Oberst joined by a large cast of musicians, from frequent collaborator Mike Mogis to Rachel Yamagata, Gillian Welch, M. Ward and Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss. Cassadaga is also the Bright Eyes album with the most interesting back story, as the events leading up to its recording and release found Oberst traveling to the titular Florida town, a sort of American psychic capital, meeting with mediums and even capturing many of them on tape, which can be heard in the introduction of opening track “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed).” Add that to the cool, decoder cover art and you’ve got a pretty intriguing package without even hearing any of the music.
The songs on Cassadaga seem to reflect journeys in and of themselves. Caught somewhere in the crossroads of love story, road diary and tall tale, “Classic Cars” features some of the most memorable lyrics on the album, like “She said the best country singers die in the back of classic cars” and “If I get out of California, I’m going back to my home state/ to tell them all that I made a mistake.” “Cleanse Song” finds Oberst on a lyrical travail from Rome to Los Angeles to Thailand, while the fuzzy, upbeat “Hot Knives” has more of a mythical lyric injected with humorous bits of life observations: “I’ve made love, yeah, I’ve been fucked…so what?” And each song’s melody, whether backed by a honky tonk piano, a string section or a lap steel, just somehow feels more appropriate with a blurry road whirring past a car window.
In the catchy “I Must Belong Somewhere,” Oberst reaches a sort of Zen clarity, breaking from his travelogue to declare “everything it must belong somewhere/ I know that now, that’s why I’m staying here.” Lively first single “Four Winds,” with its swinging fiddle hook, drops more wit and wisdom, one of the best lines being “The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Qu’ran is mute/ if you burn them all together you’d get close to the truth.”
The most telling line on Cassadaga comes in “If The Brakeman Turns My Way,” when Oberst meditates “Gonna find myself somewhere to level out.” On Bright Eyes’ sixth album, that seems to be exactly what he’s done. It may not be the most exciting or dramatic Bright Eyes album, but it sounds the most relaxed and comfortable. In examining geography, the paranormal and his own soul, Oberst, with the help of some incredible musicians, has yielded a mature, solid set that avoids taking itself too seriously, but sounds fantastic.
MP3: “Four Winds”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.