Former prodigy ventures to Mexico to record transitional album without longtime producer
For half his life, 28-year-old Conor Oberst has been schlepping around a prodigy’s burden. His early coffeehouse gigs and his group Commander Venus stirred up an unheard-of amount of notoriety for a 10th-grade songwriter from Omaha, and then he and his friends followed by forming the band Bright Eyes (among several others) and prosperous clubhouse label Saddle Creek. Ever since, Oberst has served as a skinny, bobbed and bobbing target for those aiming at superiority in the rock-taste status sweepstakes.
He’s been mocked for his emo-ish eyeliner and sweaters, canoodling with People magazine starlets (unhelped by his occasional callow blather about his own mack-daddy mojo), for his whiny/shouty vocal style, rounds of public substance abuse, folk-rock throwback semi-melodies and, most of all, his fraught-wrought lyrics and the way Bright Eyes groupies—many of them in the music press—suck it all down like watery draughts of Pabst. That his Dylanisms brought Rolling Stone to declare Oberst the top “songwriter of 2008” months before this new album was even released is only one more item in the dossier of the prosecution.
Not to be too woe-is-Conor—to his credit, he seldom bitches about the backlash. But it would be natural for him to seek some way short of dying to beg a bit of reconsideration. And the signs are there: More than a dozen albums into his discography, his latest is his first album under his own name since his teenaged cassettes. It’s not on Saddle Creek, but on the more pedigreed Merge. It was made without customary producing partner Mike Mogis, the most consistent member of Bright Eyes through the years. And it was recorded on a sabbatical of sorts early this winter in Tepoztlán, Mexico, with a handful of Saddle Creekers and other associates dubbed with the (somewhat gratingly) bare-footed moniker the Mystic Valley Band.
For its off-the-floor feel, you could almost term it Oberst’s jamband disc, though he didn’t allow for so many long guitar freakouts as to betray his punk roots—indeed, his recordings with large-ensemble versions of Bright Eyes have been baggier. The average lyric here, too, is more concise than the extended spiels of the Bright Eyes of yore. It’s more that the music seems suited to summer-festival field-grooving in the sun, whereas the lead persona of many Bright Eyes songs seldom seems to venture out of his apartment until after dark and long past sober (unless it was on 2007’s Cassadaga, to seek spiritual counsel in a Florida trailer-park town full of psychics).
Few songwriters this decade have attracted so many Bob Dylan comparisons, and the upholstery on this album—acoustic guitars and piano fills, pile-on group choruses, blues tropes and twangy road ramblers, not to mention the rural-Southwest mythos and geographical signposts—encourages a parallel between Oberst’s Mexican sojourn and the extended vision-quest at Big Pink that led Dylan and The Band to turn out The Basement Tapes. Which is to say that, in places, Oberst has finally gone all-out classic rock, sounding like a wobblier Tom Petty, if not quite Levon Helm.
The effect is generic on openers “Cape Canaveral” and “Sausalito”—despite a few memorable lines (“I know that victory is sweet / Even deep in the cheap seats”), they could come from almost any band with a country-rock jones. Oberst builds more momentum toward the middle: The aerodynamic “Get-Well-Cards” pictures a “postman sleeping in the sand,” stalling the delivery of Oberst’s best wishes to an ex or future lover (a note with a significance he slyly widens, singing, “I wanna be your common-sense pain”—or does that refer to Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense?”). The sharp “Lenders in the Temple” is another love song with a sociopolitical edge that’s subtler than past rants (such as Oberst’s notorious Bush-scolding “When the President Talks to God”). And he has a keeper in the raving “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital).”
In that bluesy blast, a terminal patient pleads for his friends to distract the nurse and pull his boots on so he can run off to perish beneath “the fat moon,” not under “fluorescent lights” and “flowers and big balloons”; so he can escape a place where “they don’t let you smoke and you can’t get drunk” but there’s “morphine in my blood like a slow sad song.” It’s a contemporary anxiety I’ve never heard anyone sing about, and the live feel helps Oberst and band deliver the guts (and other viscera) the scenario demands.
Other kick-out-the-jams numbers are less lasting—“NYC - Gone, Gone” feels like a pub throwaway, and “Souled Out!!!” meanders through a hash of guitar riffs and lines about the barrio and “the age of wires” to a dumb-pun chorus (“it’s souled out in heaven”), amounting to a musical Sloppy Joe. They’re balanced by passable ballads like the death-dwelling “Milk Thistle” (a reference to an herbal hangover antidote), which bargains over settling for less, with a nicely Oberstian twist: “If I go to heaven, I’ll be bored as hell / Like a little baby at the bottom of a well.”
Altogether, it might be his most mature and immediately listenable album. But maturity, we know, comes at a price, as I’m reminded by “Eagle on a Pole,” one of the few tunes here it’s hard to imagine being written by anyone else. Here, Oberst loosens his larynx without the excuse of rocking out, delivering cryptic-silly outbursts such as “I hope the world’s exposed / A cruel and elaborate hoax / That convinces me to walk without a cane,” which is paid off by a tagline worthy of late Texas songwriter-poet Townes Van Zandt: “El Cielo es azul” (the sky is blue), “just don’t go telling everyone.”
As much as I’ve been at one with the haters in my impatience with the self-regard of Oberst’s diarist-gone-surrealist style, the hope was never that he grow out of his idiosyncrasies, but that he grow into deploying them more deeply. Perhaps this holiday project is a transitional step.