Former mannish boy Conor Oberst turns his rambling mess into a natural-born band with "Cassadaga"
It doesn't take a soothsayer to predict that in April 2007, American alt-rock fans will learn en masse that the new Bright Eyes album is named after a spiritualist community in Florida -- 100 adult residents including 40 certified mediums, says Google. How much alt-rock needs to know this is another question, as is whether alt-rock needs the voice-over auntie whose nattering about psychic this-and-that vies with the discordant orchestration for too much of Cassadaga's six-minute opening track.
But these twin annoyances prove an acceptable way for Conor Oberst to get the bullshit out of his system. Certainly they're more efficient than the way he yoked the tuneful I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning to the noisy Digital Ash in a Digital Urn in 2005. Here, once the nattering is gone, it's gone for good. The remaining dozen tracks realize the promise manifest since Oberst's sprawling 2002 -- let's remember all fourteen words of its title for flavor -- Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. Musically, Cassadaga is fully formed, a considered synthesis of the catch-as-catch-can expansiveness of Oberst's Lifted-era bands with the country tendencies that have always undergirded his Middle American vocals. Longtime enabler Mike Mogis is everywhere, playing ten instruments all told. Nate Walcott mans multiple keyboards and arranges strings and woodwinds, which get pretty baroque on "Cleanse Song." The last track features just Oberst on guitar and synthesizer with some femme backup. There are more voice-overs, but nonetheless there's a stylistic spine here. Oberst's prog and jam-band tendencies are both subsumed by a sensibility that's Americana in a winning, all-embracing sense. Americanapolitan, let's call it.
As Oberst well knows, those with the gift of melody are allowed to tell us anything that's on their minds, and he hasn't stopped exploiting the privilege. The first song establishes a crisis -- nattering aside, "Future markets, holy wars/Been tried 10,000 times before" (and plenty else) addresses something real. The second song suggests a quest -- to Cassadaga, among many other named places. But as usual, not every track justifies the buildup. A rehab saga lurks hereabouts, sometimes out front ("Cleanse Song"), sometimes done up as an existential desolation saga ("If the Brakeman Turns My Way"). "Soul Singer in a Session Band" explores midcareer artistic confusion like thousands of songs before it. Waxing metaphysical with "a postmodern author who didn't exist," Oberst concludes that he's just like that soul singer: "I was a hopeless romantic/Now I'm just turning tricks." Give Oberst credit for freshening up a familiar theme -- but not for linking it to any crisis-and-quest.
Similarly, the album is loaded with love songs, and some of these are just love songs -- but remarkable love songs. You don't have to be an E! addict to assume that "Classic Cars" kisses off indie vamp Winona Ryder, but that inside dope is a distraction -- this is as fine a reflection on the love of an older woman as Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," one whose details add a vividness that has nothing to do with anyone's biography. "Make a Plan to Love Me" would seem to address a particular career woman, and maybe some gossipmonger will tell us who. But again it doesn't matter -- literally millions of young men and women are embroiled in such contradictions, and with the help of four professional backup girls cooing the title hook, maybe Oberst will inspire a few resolutions.
The gossip in us will wonder whether the unadorned finale addresses the same career woman, who has pretty clearly just aborted a fetus Oberst helped conceive. But give Oberst credit for connecting it back to the universal concerns he claims. Coming after "No One Would Riot for Less," a grimly courageous example of a love-at-the-end-of-the-world subgenre we all wish didn't exist, and "I Must Belong Somewhere," resigned in a chin-up way to a world whose imperfections could prove fatal, its conclusion seems pretty conclusive: "I took off my shoes and walked into the woods/I felt lost and found with every step I took." In Cassadaga, Oberst hoped to commune with the dead. On Cassadaga, he shows he can still tell us something by communing with himself.
Rolling Stone, Apr. 19, 2007