Don't Look Back
Conor Oberst makes me feel old. That’s a little strange, I guess, considering that he’s actually a few years older than I am. Nonetheless, it’s true, so indulge me, if you will, while I briefly explain. Last year, I went to see Oberst perform under his Bright Eyes moniker, for the umpteenth time since first identifying with his music as a morose teen in the early ‘aughts. While watching the band play from the second floor balcony of Washington D.C.‘s 9:30 Club, it dawned on me that for the first time in my life, I truly felt old. It wasn’t just the fact that I was clearly one of the older folks in attendance that night. Rather, the kicker was that while I had aged, the 16-year-old girls screeching, “Conor I love you!” in the front row seemingly had not. What’s more, they only seemed to have multiplied, their demands for the most angsty numbers in the Oberst songbook growing louder with each passing year.
Oberst, to his credit, wasn’t having any of it. He was about to release Cassadaga, a line in the sand in his increasingly sizeable oeuvre. On the two previous Bright Eyes records—2005’s simultaneously-released I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn—Oberst brought his songwriting schizophrenia to its logical conclusion, producing a separate album for each of his musical personalities. On Cassadaga, he would make a break with many of his past experimental tendencies, at last “settling down to create an American indie rock album of substance, maturity, and passion”, as our own Michael Keefe put it.
While we can argue about whether or not Cassadaga achieved that feat, one fact is clear: once headed down the well-worn path of songwriters past, Oberst found it difficult to look back. That night at the 9:30 Club, he repeatedly ignored requests, refusing to play any song more than a couple of years old. “You know all those songs you’re yelling out? Yeah, we actually played those,” he sneered at the girls in the front row, halfway through the set. “You’re just five years too late.”
Call it what you will—determination, stubbornness or outright obnoxiousness—but Oberst’s resolve to redefine himself continues with Conor Oberst, the first release to bear his legal name in 13 years. In every way, Conor Oberst is a more uniform affair than the uneven Cassadaga that preceded it. Gone are the orchestral flourishes, slick production and sprawling tracklist, replaced by spare minimalism, a laid-back vibe and a modest runtime of 42 minutes. Compared to Oberst’s previous work, Conor Oberst is an album’s worth of fairly conventional, even unadventurous, Americana. Still, while its peaks aren’t as high as Cassadaga‘s, its valleys aren’t quite as low either. The end result is a record that stands as Oberst’s most restrained, focused and cohesive work since his high water mark, I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning.
On first listen, it’s not immediately obvious that Conor Oberst represents a further departure from Cassadaga. Sure, the album doesn’t open with a found sound collage the way that every full-length Bright Eyes LP does. That aside, however, things sound pretty familiar on opening number “Cape Canaveral”: intertwined folky guitar lines, a foot steadily stomping out a beat, Oberst’s double-tracked warble. Only when you listen closely is it apparent that Oberst’s most distinctive device—his lyrics—have changed course. Oberst’s songs have always served as vessels for richly detailed, deeply personal narratives—the stuff of singer-songwriter gold. On “Cape Canaveral”, however, we get a smattering of surreal snapshots, a handful of largely inscrutable references and a number of contrived references to mysticism. Sure, there are still some great, highly evocative lines in “Cape Canaveral” (“Watch the migrants smoke in the old orange grove / And the red rocket blaze over Cape Canaveral”) but unlike with most of Oberst’s songs, the pieces of the lyrical jigsaw never quite seem to fit.
In that regard, “Sausalito” feels like more familiar territory. A twangy country ballad, the song finds Oberst trying to sell a lover on a Holden Caulfield-esque fantasy: moving to Sausalito and living on a houseboat. Oberst has been playing the straight-faced romantic more and more these days (see: “The First Day of My Life” and “Make a Plan to Love Me”) and “Sausalito” continues that trend, with earnestly-delivered lines like, “In the morning when the sun rises / Look in the water see the blue sky / As if heaven has been laid there at our feet.”
Musically, the delicate folk number “Lenders in the Temple” sounds more like Bright Eyes than just about anything else on Conor Oberst. Lyrically, however it suffers from the same problem as “Cape Canaveral”, namely, stream-of-consciousness lyrics that offer little room for interpretation (“There’s money lenders inside the temple / That circus tiger is gonna break your heart / Something so wild turned into paper / If I loved you, well that’s my fault”). While these lyrics don’t ruin the song per se, they certainly don’t play to Oberst’s strengths and give the listener little to cling to, given the minimalist nature of the song.
By way of contrast, the next two songs fare far better, even as they diverge from the usual Bright Eyes formula. “Danny Callahan” is as depressing as they come but wisely shifts the focus from Oberst in order to document the struggles of others (“But even western medicine / It couldn’t save Danny Callahan / That bone marrow / A bald little boy”). The song’s scope is wide enough that Oberst even manages to pack in a few easily-relatable statements (“Some wander the wilderness / Some drink cosmopolitans”).
Meanwhile, “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)”, the album’s strongest cut, takes an old Oberst set piece and turns it on its head. In Bright Eyes songs like “No Lies, Just Love” and “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)”, Oberst detailed suicidal fantasies and near-death experiences in hospitals. In “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)”, he’s scrambling to enjoy the last few moments of his fleeting life by any means necessary. “I don’t wanna die in the hospital / I don’t wanna die in the hospital / I don’t wanna die in the hospital / You gotta take me back outside”, he pleads over a rollicking saloon piano line. Gloomy though it may sound on paper, “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)” is easily the most playful, lighthearted tune Oberst has ever penned, both musically and in its dark humor (“Can you make a sound to distract the nurse? / Before I take a ride in that long, black hearse”). What’s more, it’s got an anthemic, yelp-a-long chorus, with a vocal assist by Macey Taylor: “Help me get my boots on / Help me get my boots on / Help me get my boots back on”.
Likewise, “NYC-Gone, Gone” invites audience participation, with its stomps, handclaps and repetitive group chant of “Gone, gone to New York City / Where you gonna go with a head that empty?” “Moab” keeps things buoyant as well, its bluesy riffs ably supporting the central thesis, “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal”. Lead single “Souled Out!!!” (get it?) takes things a step further, bordering on full-bore blues rock, while sneaking in a few obligatory nods to the fact that Conor Oberst was recorded not at Presto! Studios in Lincoln, Nebraska but in a mountain villa in Tepoztlán, Mexico (“The barrio starts two streets over / Miguel, he’s a friend of mine”).
Surprisingly, Conor Oberst ends with a whimper, not a bang. There are no dramatic swells of strings, group sing-a-longs or other indulgences to be found at the album’s close, just an understated folk tune and some of the album’s most straightforward lyrics. Partially a meditation on mortality, “Milk Thistle” finds Oberst admitting that he keeps death on his mind “Like a heavy crown” and that if he goes to heaven, he’ll be “Bored as hell / Like a little baby at the / Bottom of a well”. While these are common themes for Oberst, rarely has he addressed them quite so plainly—or so affectingly.
Clearly, Conor Oberst is meant to serve as a reboot, an attempt at redefinition from an undeniably divisive artist. While there’s little question as to whether or not Conor Oberst is a departure, in some ways it feels more like a transition piece than a statement of purpose. While Oberst seems to have settled quite comfortably into the role of roots rock troubadour as far as songcraft is concerned, lyrically, he’s still finding his voice. Bright Eyes was a chronicle of one boy’s struggles through adolescence and early adulthood—melodrama, angst, histrionics and all. Conor Oberst, on the other hand, takes aim at larger targets and reaches for more universal emotions—but more often than not, misses the mark.
Part of the problem here is that Oberst is obviously still getting used to writing songs where he’s not the central focus. He is showing signs of progress, though. On Lifted and Cassadaga, Oberst attempted to tackle political themes but ended up penning songs that were more agit-prop than protest. On Conor Oberst, he’s realized that the personal can be political too—and that subtly worded statements can be more convincing than didactic ones.
Ultimately, Conor Oberst is a bit of a mixed bag, an album that’s often as frustrating as it is inviting. It is, however, a step in the right direction and a sure sign that Oberst is growing as a songwriter. And while the record doesn’t always speak to his considerable talents as a lyricist, on the few songs where it all comes together, the results are truly breathtaking. As Oberst heads down the dusty Americana trail in earnest, I can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever live up to the lofty expectations placed on him and take his place in the country-rock canon. My suspicion is that those of us patient enough to ride it out with him will find out eventually. As for those of you hoping for a return to the melodrama, angst and histrionics of albums past—I don’t mean to sound like an asshole but you’re about five years too late.
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