Oberst stops whining, grows up, learns to have a little fun
Let's be honest: Conor Oberst has an image that he's dragged around with him like a tear-stained cardigan for about a decade. The whimpering, "dear diary" Conor lamented, wailed, wept and whispered his way to indie-rock stardom as the frontman of Bright Eyes, simultaneously influencing the future of rock 'n' roll as he went. Six-ish bands, one dual album release and countless Dylan comparisons later, Oberst is finally learning to lighten up.
Outer South, Oberst's second project with the Mystic Valley Band, marks a lighthearted shift in the prodigy's oeuvre. The blues and bluegrass-infused album sets him apart from his previous image, transforming him from the kid you try to talk off the ledge to the guy you want to have a beer with.
His self-titled 2008 album, also backed by the Mystic Valley Band, was a step in the right direction--a transition from the angst-ridden diatribes of earlier Bright Eyes albums, like Fevers and Mirrors, into a more boisterous countrified sound. Oberst journeyed to Mexico to record his previous album and, like an upper-middle-class college kid studying abroad in Europe, the south-of-the-border sojourn was a musical coming-of-age moment for Oberst.
It's on Outer South that he develops this newfound maturity, employing a sound that almost seems to be inspired by fellow Saddle Creek alums Lullaby for the Working Class and Two Gallants, with their blends of lo-fi indie folk and jangling harmonies. Oberst seems to have taken the more folksy road that he first began exploring on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning—as if he tossed the mopey tracks from that record and, instead, developed upon the more jaunty ones (like "Another Traveling Song") to create an album bursting with more exuberance than Old Conor would know what to do with.
The end result is an album that retains quintessential Oberstisms--his penchant for soulful lyrics, his rebel-rousing holler, and yes, occasionally his softly quavering voice—while simultaneously hinting that the singer-songwriter is all grown up. In short, arguably for the first time, Oberst gives us an album rife with liveliness—and it sounds like he had a damn good time making it.
Listen to Conor Oberst's "Nikorette" from Outer South: