Review Summary: Lush and tuneful country-pop that retains super-songwriter Conor Oberst's fragile lyrical voice.
Conor Oberst, known for his shouty protest-folk, has created a superb indie-pop album that is fuller in sound, better-produced, and melodically more inspired than any of his previous releases as Bright Eyes. Sure, some of Oberst's previous albums merit their high praise, but with Cassadaga, Oberst really branches out, yet still retaining the cutting lyrical turn of his previous outings. This move into polished country-pop really pays off.
First up, never before has 'Bright Eyes' more deserved to be called a bona fide 'band', rather than simply a moniker for Oberst, like 'Iron & Wine'. The arrangements are full and lush, the counter-melodies subtle and pronounced, and more than ever before the music behind Oberst's tortured voice comes to the fore - strings, horns, violins and pedal steel are included in the mix, the latter recalling Neil Young. When the first few bars of 'Four Winds' burst onto the scene, the effect is joyous. Choosing to include Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the outstanding country duo famed for their own albums as well as collaborations with Ryan Adams and others, could only have been a good move - Welch's husky vocals transform the chorus of 'Classic Cars' into an uplifting piece of nostalgia.
This is not to say that Oberst hasn't neglected his all-important lyrics in favour of a good pop tune - in fact, his idiosyncratic literary-and-literal words are as compelling as ever. But he's reigned in those moments where the urgency and angst of his voice would overshadow the words themselves. There are none of the shouting, vulnerable, full-out vocal outbursts of 'Lifted' or 'Fever and Mirrors' here; the vocals are warmer, more measured and let the lyrics really speak for themselves. Meditations on God and the spiritual ('If the Brakeman Turns My Way', 'Four Winds'), lost love in favour of fame (the sublime 'Make a Plan To Love Me'), and the cynical exploitation of what is 'natural' ('I Must Belong Somewhere') all make a welcome appearance. Some of Oberst's best lines can be found here: 'First a mother bathes her child, then the other way around; the scales always find a way to level out', and 'life is how it is, not how it was', taken in the context of the rest of the album, really strike at chord.
Cassadaga is an album that preserves Oberst's vulnerable, fragile voice, but augments it with tasteful and incredibly well-crafted pop arrangements - and because of this union, it is a huge success. The skeptical and sometimes autobiographical ('Soul Singer in a Session Band') overtones in the words never sound stilted, and the literary references Oberst has come to love are well-placed. Though previous Bright Eyes albums may retain more of a ragged, authentic folky feel, Cassadaga matches them. It's majestic but not overblown, ambitious but not pretentious. It's a major musical success.
Top tracks: 'Four Winds', 'Make A Plan To Love Me', 'If The Brakeman Turns My Way', 'Classic Cars.'