“…with the coming of Bright Eyes began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.” The first lines from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road can be seen as a fitting analogy for the creative life of Conor Oberst as a traveling troubadour in search of truth and meaning within the journey of song. I know that Dean Moriarty is the one who led Sal across North America but I believe it’s Bright Eyes that did the same for Conor. And just like in that American classic, Conor himself has traveled from East to West Coast and found himself within the friendly mystical confines of Mexico.
There are parallel’s between the characters in Kerouac’s novel and Conor’s trip into Mexico. This time he’s left behind his familiar moniker and band mates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. Conor gathered a few friends, a.k.a The Mystic Valley Band, in Valle Místico just outside the town of Tepoztlán and recorded his first solo album under his own name. The seeds to Conor Oberst came out of the inspirational visit to Cassadaga, Fla., and the experience that spawned the songs from the album of the same name.
Conor Oberst takes off with the very elegant “Cape Canaveral.” Unlike most Bright Eyes recordings one is not treated to as surreal an opening number that’s usually filled with sampled, spaced out sound effects as in Lifted‘s “Big Picture” and Cassadaga‘s “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed).” You can tell that Conor’s taking a different approach with this solo effort by letting you into his world from the opening chords.
To me, Conor Oberst sounds like his own version of McCartney, Paul’s first solo album recorded away from civilization in a small cabin. Conor’s first solo record has this same homemade feel—you can hear crickets in the background and Conor even recorded some of his own vocals while lying in a hammock. It has a relaxing and joyous feel that you connect with as Oberst serenades to you within these magnificent songs.
Conor Oberst’s solo album isn’t just an acoustic record, as with the help of The Mystic Valley Band, he plugs in on the very electric “NYC – Gone, Gone.” There’s the “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” era R.E.M.-inspired “Sausalito.” But my favorite has to be “Souled Out.” I love the lyrics, especially: “I woke up in the age of wires/ I fell asleep at the dusk of man… Fingers crossed in the promised land.” I hear this song as a reflection of how far Conor has come from the Digital Ash days of Bright Eyes into the mystical valleys of Mexico. You can hear a sort of creative rebirth in his voice. There’s a hints of a smile as he sings in “Souled Out.”
Oberst’s album ends with the very beautiful “Milk Thistle.” You can hear within the lyrics how much Conor has grown. In the past it seems that he has been content singing about being lost in the darkness. Conor Oberst has him bathing in magical essence of Mexico:
“All the light and sound,
This little world’s too fragile now,
And there’s only one way out.
If you let me slide,
I’ll do my best to make things right,
And I know where bound,
Keep going up and down,
Up and down.”
Conor’s still on a journey, and songs like the rockabilly-flavored, piano driven “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)” reflects his resurrected spirit. This living for the moment and reconnecting with his natural surroundings, this is the spirit that I can truly connect with. It’s been a long strange trip for Conor and me. For the longest time I wasn’t a believer. Luckily I found someone who showed me the magic and power within his music. After seeing him live at the El Rey Theater, I became a convert. Even more so now, as his magnificent new solo album seals it for me. He is the real deal; a true singer/songwriter with the spirit of Dylan and Kerouac in his soul. Just like those anti-heroes in On The Road, you hear that Conor found his own magic land at the end of his magic road.