Review Summary: Victory is sweet even deep in the cheap seats.
When we last left Conor Oberst, he finished up the latest Bright Eyes album, Cassadaga
. On that album he pursued further the western tones that he'd hinted at all his life and dabbled in on perhaps his magnum opus, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
, but with an orchestral touch. What really grew out of Cassadaga
, however, was his sense of melody. Lead single “Four Winds” was perhaps his most melodic work to date. Yet the album had a certain mysticism about it, likely due to its more supernatural themes (Cassadaga, Florida is a town of psychics). Lyrically, the album had a certain intangibility about it, not nearly as direct as something like “Land Locked Blues” or “Lover I Don't Have to Love.” It seemed the Oberst was headed further and further down an existentialist path, one of personal reflection. Still, he still had traces of his old romantic in “Make a Plan to Love Me” and his activist in “No One Would Riot for Less.” He still made his political trips while on tour, endorsing Democratic nominee Barack Obama and playing at his rallies. Despite his outspoken political beliefs, however, his latest effort, the first under his own name since 1996 continues down a much more isolated path.
Recording sites have become a source of inspiration for Oberst, and it would seem, on first glance, that this record is no different. Tepoztlán, Mexico is the rumored birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the famous Aztec God. But the album, recorded with a backing band called The Mystic Valley Band, sounds and feels much more down-to-earth. Simplicity often dominates the lyrical topics, most notably “I Don't Want to Die (In The Hospital).” The song is about as simple as the title, describing the last wishes of a man who simply wants to live, and not die tied to a hospital bed. The anxious, rushed, energetic nature of the music complements the topic perfectly, although its not the most aesthetically pleasing style. Indeed, there's hardly any originality or anything particularly interesting in the song except its blunt simplicity. Oberst hardly steps outside of the title's meaning for any broad-based metaphor, although this story may itself be a giant metaphor. What's important, however, is that Oberst is having fun here. “Souled Out!!!” and its consistent drug references, as well as filler tracks like “NYC-Gone, Gone” show Oberst having more fun and being a bit more carefree about his music.
In general, however, the lyrics and delivery of Conor Oberst help further the consistent Bob Dylan comparisons thrown at him. His delivery in “Get-Well-Cards” reeks of Dylan influence (“right there, that's the postman sleeping in the sand”), his voice not melodic but more rhythmic. And while many times, the album takes a down-to-earth approach, something more spiritual lingers about its themes. The punchline of “Eagle on a Pole” is “El cielo es azul, just don't go telling anyone,” which can translate to the sky is blue or heaven is blue. The previously mentioned “Souled Out!!!”, despite its casual drug lifestyle references, saves its real meaning for the line “It's sold out in heaven.” Finally, “Milk Thistle” closes the album with “If I go to heaven, I'll be bored as hell/Like a baby crying at the bottom of a well.” Still, these descriptions of heaven and afterlife are not the words of some transcendent spirit but of a lowly peon, humbled yet insightful.
Musically, the album's best moments are in its stripped down moments. Oberst has learned exactly how to make an acoustic ballad in his years, and it makes “Cape Canaveral”, “Lenders in the Temple”, and others the easy standout songs on the album. Indeed, since his voice is terribly unmelodic and raw, he relies much on his lyrical talent to carry most of his songs, and the stripped down songs often have the most meaning. The Mystic Valley Band behind him, however, manage to create the most authentic country-western feel Conor has ever had in songs like “Sausalito” and “Danny Callahan.” While Cassadaga was Oberst's most musically evolved album, it fell from him trying to reach something that felt unnatural to him; Conor Oberst
is instead the sound of a musician playing right where he is comfortable. In many ways, it's the safest record he's ever made.
Perhaps this carefree nature is why he decided to release this under his own name rather than his main project, Bright Eyes. While at its core, it sounds and feels like a Bright Eyes record, nothing about the album is experimental for him. Undoubtedly, the filler track “Valle Mistico (Ruben's Song)”, which is just the pointless playing of some archaic bugle, would not have made the cut for a Bright Eyes album. Musically, the album has lower standards, but those standards are what makes the album more fun than anything he's ever produced. The second verse of “Souled Out!!!” has one of his most personable moments with the interruption from his consistent female counterpart on the record and his subsequent laugh. Lyrically, however, the album is just another soul-searching journey, and while he may be getting too old to call a “boy genius”, he's not lost any of his wistful intelligence.
Album stream: http://www.conoroberst.com/album