I feel like we’ve all indulged Conor Oberst a little over the years. When his band Bright Eyes first burst into public consciousness with 2000’s tempestuous Fevers and Mirrors, he was only 20, still a kid. The record was overwrought, sure, but it was easy to spot the genius behind the quivering rants and pleas. He was grappling with the same youthful emotional torrents of emo-land, but his images, his poetry, his finely chosen words slamdanced against the shrinking walls of a painful yet beautifully rendered world. Oberst’s lyrics have always been his greatest selling point. Well, that and his nervous charisma, with the self-doubts darting around his big, brown, bang-curtained eyes. He was easily cast as the frail romantic; in the 19th century, he would have caught consumption and met an early grave.
Instead, he has soldiered on, continuing to indulge. There was the messy sprawl of 2002’s Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, an ambitious and sometimes successful album that nonetheless felt awkward, like an oversized suit hanging on a young man’s frame. He followed this with 2005’s evil twins, the countrified I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and the dark synth-pop of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Each was an interesting experiment that worked most of the time, but the self-imposed sonic restrictions seemed to undermine his strengths as a songwriter.
Finally, on Cassadaga, Conor Oberst has (mostly) left his indulgences behind, settling down to create an American indie rock album of substance, maturity, and passion. This is the Bright Eyes we’ve been waiting for. This is why we’ve taken it easy on Oberst when he’s flailed a little. Now the “next Bob Dylan” tag that some have attached begins to seem apropos, especially when Nate Wolcott fires up his organ and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis joins in with flourishes of mandolin, 12-string acoustic, or lap steel. Bring those tapes out of the basement. That’s a Nashville skyline, if I’ve ever seen one.
Cassadaga isn’t strictly a country rock album, though. And as we find out right away, on the album’s opening track, “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)”, Oberst hasn’t yet discarded all of his indulgences. When it comes to using found interviews, it’s like he simply can’t help himself. The first sounds we hear on the new album are a woman’s voice saying, “Cassadaga, oh yeah. That’s where you’re going to find the centers of energy. And they’ve got those in Arizona, too”. She continues her rambling new age narration as an orchestra builds its slow, careening, pseudo-tune-up crescendo. So, no, the first two minutes aren’t restrained or particularly confident or even interesting. Don’t worry, though. Once the star singer-songwriter emerges, Cassadaga eases into greatness and never looks back.
Lead single “Four Winds” is an Americana beauty with a fiddle intro equal parts old school Nashville and avant Camper Van Beethoven. The music is strong, and well composed and performed. The use of female backup singers, which continues throughout the album, adds a sumptuous extra texture and the perfect complement to Oberst’s voice. Still, his arresting imagery steals the show once again:
“The squatters made a mural of a Mexican girl
With fifteen cans of spray paint in a chemical swirl
She is standing in the ashes at the end of the world
Four Winds blowing through her hair”
The orchestra returns, this time to far better effect, on the beautiful “Make a Plan to Love Me”, with its graceful movement of form, its gorgeous string swells, and the angelic vocals of the DuPree sisters. The song is a surprisingly beguiling mashup of Julee Cruise, vintage Scott Walker, and, well, Bright Eyes. “Soul Singer in a Session Band” comes closest to evoking Dylan and the Band, with former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss stretching out her melodic fills in retro rock fashion, while Walcott’s B-3 twinkles and pulses in the mix, and neo-folkie M. Ward lends support on vocals and guitar. On “Middlemen”, gypsy fiddling, clarinet, and hand drums offer a new flavor for Oberst’s tale of the trade-offs inherent in being a member of this mortal coil. “The dead can hide beneath the ground and the birds can always fly / But the rest of us do what we must in constant compromise”.
I said this wasn’t a country rock album, but this descriptor would suffice more often than not to describe the songs on Cassadaga. Both Oberst’s music and his lyrical themes refuse to be so easily reined in, but the record returns frequently to the adornments of the style. And the presence of Gillian Welch and Davis Rawlings on “Classic Cars” boost the Americana factor. Unlike Bright Eyes’ last two discs, this new album is not a genre exercise. Still, you’ve gotta like a little bit of twang in order to appreciate the riches of this record.
Aside from the bump of the opening cut, Cassadaga is an assured and accomplished album; a classic constructed from classic elements. Beyond the music, which is quite good, Conor Oberst’s unique lyrical voice lifts his works above the rest of the field. He pulls together themes of “middlemen” and “Babylon” through tracks about global affairs, personal tales, simple truths, and yearnings for love. And, unlike past efforts, he doesn’t (often) over-dramatize these themes with musical bombast or desperate shouts. Conor Oberst knows his songs are good and he knows you’re paying attention. As well you should be. Cassadaga is one of the great albums of 2007.