Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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****

CONOR OBERST
Conor Oberst
Merge

Oberstimulated: Prolific rocker needs a second band to handle his output

Like no one else this decade, Conor Oberst commands a musically enhanced version of the gift of gab, in which an overlay of melody helps the balderdash go down. A little more than a year after Cassadaga, released under the long-standing group name Bright Eyes, Oberst keeps the blarney flowing on his first solo album since he broke out of Nebraska circa 2002. These 12 songs are romantic, poetic, excessive, tragic and wet. Slightly less forceful than on Cassadaga, Oberst quavers noticeably as he sings about love, death, the road and front-page news that can take your day away. But he makes himself felt.

Like most artists with the gift of gab, Oberst doesn't think consistency is a big deal. Themes and events shift in and out of focus, and songs hit from different angles when they hit at all, which most do. You have to wonder if "NYC--Gone, Gone" comes ninth because Oberst knew its reel-like multiple climaxes started feeling forced after a while. But most of his refrains are knockouts. In the lost-love "Moab," "There's nothing that the road cannot heal" could almost be the truth. Permuted 18 times, the title of "I Don't Want to Die (in the Hospital)" becomes indelible, cementing the universal relevance of what may be Oberst's greatest song.

As usual, love songs of varying specificity predominate--most of them lost-love songs. In "Sausalito," Oberst hopes to "remain between her legs/Sheltered from all my fears." Soon enough, however, he has hightailed it on an album that sets down in New York, California, Utah, Mexico City, Cape Canaveral and points unnamed. Fortunately, Oberst always projects a spiritual generosity unknown to most footloose troubadours who can't commit. He's neither macho braggart nor whiny wimp. That's reason to hope the backup he deploys with considerable intelligence but no surprises proves a one-off. Bright Eyes changes so much it's more a conceptual conceit than a working band. But the way that conceit combines commitment and variety provides another level of enhancement. And Oberst's gab deserves it.

Blender, Sept. 2008