[3 May 2009]
Back when he still traded under the Bright Eyes name, Conor Oberst was a schizophrenic songwriter, hopping from folk to electro-pop to indie rock with a cheerful disdain for genre lines. Even so, his records rarely wanted for cohesiveness. In those days, Oberst’s distinctive songwriting was the unifying factor, tying together musically disparate threads through recurring themes, common devices and persistent concerns. It’s ironic, then, that as Oberst has tended toward a single musical style—Americana, roots rock, alternative country or whatever you want to call it—his songwriting has increasingly felt less tightly knit. On last year’s Conor Oberst, Oberst attempted to redefine himself as a songwriter, redirecting his inward-looking gaze and reining in his more self-indulgent tendencies. While the end result was an album that often felt more inscrutable than relatable, it was, at the very least, a tightly focused and restrained effort—something that can’t be said for much of Oberst’s output.
Outer South, by way of contrast, feels like a sprawling mess. At over an hour in length, the album finds Oberst and friends throwing plenty of ideas at the wall, less than half of which really stick. Part of the problem here is that Oberst authored only 10 of the 16 songs on Outer South (and sings lead on only nine of them), in an attempt to allow his Mystic Valley bandmates to share in the spotlight. This must have seemed like a thoughtful, egalitarian gesture at the time and certainly reinforces the idea that the Mystic Valley Band—unlike Bright Eyes—is a “real” band. Unfortunately, each of the four songsmiths on Outer South writes in a distinctive voice, a fact that makes the album feel more like a patchwork effort than a collaborative one.
Regardless, there’s still plenty of meat to be found on these bones, at least as far as the music is concerned. Belying its name, opening number “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)” kicks things off with a bang. All muscular blues riffs and bleating organs, the song finds Oberst venturing deeper into Dylan territory than he’s been willing to in the past. “Nikorette”, the album’s lead single, continues in much the same vein, piling on the hot licks and saloon pianos. While the song finds Oberst in his lyrical comfort zone—anxiously fretting about various and sundry topics—his clumsy phrasing and poor choice of imagery here belie his considerable skill as a lyricist (“I’m just trying to stay a human being / Sitting in the sun eating ice cream”).
As a matter of fact, these criticisms can be leveled at just about any of Oberst’s songs on Outer South, many of which feature awkward and occasionally puzzling turns of phrase (what woman would want to be serenaded with the line, “I’m gonna love you like a new sow”?). Oberst is at his best when he’s feeling introspective, incisively and eloquently articulating even his most intangible emotions. When it comes to external conflicts, however, he often stumbles. The lone exception here is “I Got the Reason”, the album’s penultimate—and finest—track.
A seven-minute epic, “I Got the Reason” skews closer to last year’s self-titled album during its opening, pairing a fingerpicked guitar line with an organ that intermittently creeps in at the edges. Ever pensive, Oberst muses about those who work while the rest of the world sleeps, imploring the listener to, “Do right by them / Work a little in your dreams”. It’s a simple yet exquisite line, a morsel of believable folk wisdom on an album that often smacks of rural fetishization. The rest of the track fares similarly well in the lyrics department, with Oberst synthesizing his budding technophobia with his love/hate relationship with spiritualism (“I hear the big church bell / It’s ringing like a mobile phone”) and eventually bringing it all back home to the song’s central theme of memory (“In a vast hard drive / In the satellites that kick and spin / They keep the old footage / So that everything can live again”).
The delightfully skuzzy “Roosevelt Room” also merits a mention for its unhinged delivery and infectious zeal. Filtering the angsty agitprop of Desaparecidos through a blues-rock lens, “Roosevelt Room” feels like a retelling of “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)” through the eyes of an agitator (“Hey there son of Adam / Hey there daughter of Eve / Help me sing this tear gas riot song to some / Fresh-faced police”). Oberst’s views are often less-than nuanced when comes to politics—he’s always seemed more interested in fomenting revolution than in sparking debate—but on “Roosevelt Room”, it’s hard to deny the passion and fury with which he exorcizes his convictions.
While none of the non-Oberst tracks on Outer South steal the spotlight, a few do manage to carry their weight. Nik Freitas proved that he was a more than capable pop songwriter on last year’s Sun Down, so it’s not surprising that his two contributions, “Big Black Nothing” and “Bloodline”, largely pass muster, with their easy gait and assured delivery. Lyrically, both songs are a bit weak, tackling philosophical questions yet failing to arrive at profound conclusions. Still, you can’t exactly blame Freitas for holding back on a record where he isn’t given top billing. Meanwhile, the Taylor Hollingsworth-penned “Air Mattress”, while unabashedly cheesy, ultimately proves rewarding. A mishmash of Cars-indebted keyboards and boilerplate country-rock, the song’s endearing chorus (“The air mattress with you / Can I sleep on”) eventually manages to worm its way into the listener’s brain.
On the flip side, we get two songs penned by Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel, “Difference is Time” and “Eagle on a Pole”, both of which are bland and largely forgettable. “Worldwide”, which Oberst wrote for bassist Macey Taylor to sing, is a lazily worded throwaway (“I can always find you / Like the sweet North Star / It doesn’t really matter now / Where you are”). And Hollingsworth’s tedious “Snake Hill”, which closes out the album, all but ensures that the already exhausted listener will breathe a sigh of relief at its close.
In his review of a Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band show for this publication, Joseph Carver noted that Oberst, like his peer Ryan Adams, wants “desperately to be part of a band and less a personality”. That’s understandable given that both men have inadvertently created cults of personality that overshadow their musical output, threatening to limit their mobility as songwriters (both Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst audiences are known for insistently demanding that quotas of so-called “sad bastard music” are met).
While reinvention is hardly novel in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, the most successful metamorphoses take time—especially for artists who have devoted their careers to writing from a single perspective. Oberst, however, seems to have little appreciation for this fact. To wit, Outer South arrives a mere nine months after Conor Oberst and just over a year after the spontaneous formation of the Mystic Valley band. While many of the tracks on Outer South have potential, nearly all of these songs sound like they could have benefited from a bit more time in the oven. One suspects that virtually all of the album’s flaws, from its overstuffed tracklist to its lack of consistency, could have been avoided had the band taken its time writing, vetting and selecting songs for Outer South. Conor Oberst might be in a hurry to redefine himself as an artist but I suspect that until he learns a thing or two about quality control, he’ll have quite a bit of trouble stepping out from behind that long shadow.