Review Summary: Cassadaga pairs Conor Oberst's country obsessions with an orchestra as he spins more personal stories and puts politics in the backseat.
Releasing two drastically different albums and giving each album their own individual tour proved a bad idea for Conor Oberst back in 2005. Through his extensive touring, Conor dabbled in drugs, cursed out DJ John Peel while high on mushrooms, and the tabloids exposed him and Winona Ryder. He got sick of everything and needed a break. Well, where else to go than Cassadaga, Florida? Cassadaga is just the place for Conor, full of profound ideas and a quirky community. When I say quirky community, I mean a community of psychics. A secluded place of only 100 adult members, Cassadaga gave Conor time to figure out where he wanted to go with the rest of his life, feeling aged and decrepit at the humongous age of 27. Thanks to Conor, Cassadaga’s population is sure to grow, as this album, like many of his albums, is a scrapbook of his experiences and thoughts during his sojourn to Cassadaga. The extensive touring, however, gave Conor experience and allowed him to train his voice simply through repetition and constant singing. Touring the world and seeing all kinds of different music gave him new inspiration for new sounds, pushing further into country-infused rock. Cassadaga sees the entrance of an orchestra. If any Bright Eyes album shows Conor’s potential, Cassadaga is that album.
As most Bright Eyes albums, Cassadaga begins strangely with Clairaudients (To Kill or Not Be Killed)
. The orchestra makes its largest appearance with atonal ambience with what sounds like a voice played through an answer machine. The orchestra drowns out the voice at some points, making the words indistinguishable, but the woman is obviously a psychic. After over 2 minutes of this strange, off setting chaos, a serene, calm, and simple guitar melody comes with Conor’s trademark wavering voice, now mastered. Like Smoke Without Fire
on the Four Winds EP, Oberst uses the M. Ward empty production style. Slowly, the orchestra adds itself back in and the song becomes a mix of the chaos and the calm. Clairaudients
sets the tone for Cassadaga; a deeply personal and introspective album where politics take a backseat to Conor’s personal anecdotes and discoveries, but that is not to see Conor completely disregarded the rest of the world. He fills No One Would Riot for Less
, a quiet song laced with more orchestra and woman backup vocals, with political lines like “From madness of the governments/To the vengeance of the seas/Everything is eclipsed/By the shape of destiny” and “you know war, it has no heart/It will kill you in the sunshine/Or just as happily in the dark.”
Conor’s best lyrical work comes on Soul Singer in a Session Band
, an introspective, pessimistic look at his current condition. Lines like “I was a hopeless romantic, now I’m just turning tricks” and “I grew old in an instant, now I’m all on my own” blatantly describe his depression and why he needed to spend time in Cassadaga. However, most of the lyrics are more abstract, using the metaphor of a soul singer in a session band to show how he no longer feels anything and needs to rediscover himself. Musically, Soul Singer in a Session Band
is accessible and simple. The drummer holds the backbeat to the point where the song almost drags, but that adds to the feel of the song and keeps it from rushing and getting too energetic. The sound perfectly exemplifies Conor’s country-rock style, full of activity yet simplistic and easy-going.
Cassadaga finally brings a Bright Eyes album where the music is just as good as the lyrics. Songs like Hot Knives
, which switches from modern gritty rock to simple piano music to acoustic work on the fly, grab the listener’s attention entirely and completely distract him/her from the lyrics, which is good because they are somewhat vague and cliché (“on a dance floor no one tells time”?) Middleman
mixes acoustic guitar with folk violin and ethnic percussion. One of the more uptempo songs on the album, it revitalizes the album after a long string of slower songs. Lime Tree
ends the album calmly, a good way for the album to end because of its sleepy feel. Acoustic guitar and Conor lead the song along, but more women’s choir and orchestral flourish add nuances into the song. Each song on Cassadaga is at least listenable and its own song. Many of the songs, however, are purely listenable and do not hold to the standard of Cassadaga’s better tracks. Make a Plan to Love Me
, Classic Cars
, and Coat Check Dream Song
are all slow and placed at bad times on the album. Classic Cars
continues a three-song strain of ballads. By itself, it has a great lyrical concept, but it is too simple and repetitive musically.
I had a premonition myself when I first looked at Cassadaga. I thought it was going to be terrible, with nearly half of the album’s song lengths falling between 4:10 and 4:20. The title Make a Plan to Love Me
sounded terribly generic. Cassadaga ended up pleasantly surprising me; it is easily near the top of all of Conor Oberst’s releases. Fantastic lyrical concepts, an improved musicianship and the addition of an orchestra make Cassadaga easily the most enjoyable Bright Eyes album as a whole. Conor and Company could have improved it by having more energy and making better use of the orchestra, but Cassadaga will have the indie world buzzing and possibly the mainstream.
Soul Singer in a Session Band