this, the first solo album in twelve years by Bright Eyes' resident singer/borderline alcoholic/songwriter Conor Oberst, is a record that's been on my mp3 player and my mind in equal amounts. at first, i was a little dismissive - pre-release hype was giving me the impression this was another attempt at Conor's grand vision he had for 2007's Bright Eyes album, Cassadaga. its widescreen cinematic scope and overarching themes of religion, redemption and the rapture, along with the bleating female backing vocals and overbearing orchestral score, seemed to alienate every fan who'd been keeping up with him since those basement tapes recorded on four-track for the earliest incarnation of Saddle Creek Records way back in 1993.
his principal songwriting vehicle, Bright Eyes, had been attracting more public adoration and press attention with each album (the band's studio output includes seven albums and countless EPs), primarily due to the unsettling honesty of Oberst's lyrics - each song eloquently detailed family tragedy, heartbreak, clinical depression, drug and alcohol abuse, even suicide attempts. what came a close second was fans and casual observers like interest in seeing him drink and snort himself into self-destruction. he was perfect pop culture martyr material... Elliott Smith's face was too ugly for t-shirts and no one had left a good-looking corpse since Kurt Cobain. alas, the road to oblivion seemed to hit a cul-de-sac at the tail end of 2005 on the tour for Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. after a year spent constantly touring the two albums he had released that year (the other being I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning) and doing copious amounts of mushrooms, it collapsed into cancelled dates and press controversy due to a coked-up slur about then-recently deceased DJ John Peel at Glastonbury. rather unfairly, his barely comprehensible comments were blown out of proportion, and overshadowed what was the most successful year for Bright Eyes so far.
Oberst took a step back from the abyss, and following the conclusion of the tour, Bright Eyes remained inactive for the greater part of 2006. this rare lull in (musical) activity sparked a change in him, and subsequently his material. he travelled the US, visiting the community of mediums and clairvoyants in Florida called Cassadaga, hung out, relaxed, and grew his hair long. fuckin' hippie. when Bright Eyes came back in early 2007 with the Four Winds EP, the mellow, countrified sound he hinted at on I'm Wide Awake... came in full swing, fiddle 'n' all. the following LP, Cassadaga, attracted all the press attention and rave reviews that I'm Wide Awake... and Digital Ash... enjoyed, but the hardcore "'Creekers" didn't take to it. he seemed to have lost what made him so captivating in the first place, forgetting that the simple sound of his voice and a guitar was what made career-defining songs like "Lua" and "Waste of Paint" what they were. he exchanged the bleak naval-gazing for clumsy meditations on faith ("The Bible is blind, the Torah is deaf, the Qur'an is mute/if you burned them all together you'd get close to the truth") and the end of the world ("From the madness of the governments to the vengeance of the sea/Everything is eclipsed by the shape of destiny"). to his credit, he aimed high, but his words fell short of doing justice to the heavy subject matter, and the production seemed to hold the record back - Mike Mogis' slick 'n' shiny studio moves tried to convey lush landscapes to compliment songs more upbeat numbers like Make a Plan to Love Me and Cleanse Song, but came off sounding as barren as the "sterile soil" as described in No One Would Riot For Less.
so now, on Conor Oberst, he takes another step back, but it's not a regression. keeping in mind the heights he tried to conquer with his last album, he scales it down to the bare essentials to cover the terrain with ease.
Oberst retains the gift for careful wordplay that once again synchronizes with his deft guitar playing seamlessly, possibly better than it ever has. eschewing the multiple-studio engineering sheen (an absent Mike Mogis is the primary reason this is an album by Conor Oberst, not a Bright Eyes one), he seems content again to record rough live takes with his buddies and bandmates, only this time it's around a campire in the Mexican desert rather than Omaha basements. everything about it sounds so comfortable, the only way you'd know he left the country to record it is the lyrical references to crossing the border and running away with yr girlfriend in album highlights "Moab" and "NYC-Gone, Gone". these songs in particular are heartwarming listens, a perfect antidote to the stubborn sentiment Benjamin Gibbard conveyed in Death Cab For Cutie's "Blacking Out The Friction" ("I think that it's brainless to assume that making changes to your window's view will give a new perspective").
it's not all beer and sunshine though, as he evidently still has a little bit of the pessimist in him. the protest spirit of Bob Dylan takes hold of him on songs like "Lenders in the Temple", in which he conjures up wild imagery ("The starving children ain't got no mother/There's pink flamingos living in the mall"), and delivers more of the classic wunderkind meditations on the "Why Me?" nature of the music business ("The lights are out, where'd everybody go?"). this and a couple of other songs are filtered with the same empty-music-hall echo that plagued some of the worst songs on Cassadaga - it's put to slightly better use here, but it's still not as welcome as the intimate bedroom acoustics of songs like "A Song to Pass the Time" would be.
on a lighter note, on "Get-Well-Cards" and "I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)", he channels the 1966, rock 'n' roll "Judas!" Dylan spirit. again, both tracks sound like a band (namely the Mystic Valley Band) just having fun. the title for the latter might mislead some to believe it's another suicide-attempt ballad like those that featured on Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted..., but the truth is it couldn't be more removed. the song bounds along with burning hope that the song's protagonist might yet live to see the world outside his ward again, and begs you to help him get his boots back so he can "feel the earth against my feet/as the cold wind calls for me". it remains my personal favourite on the album, and one of my favourite all-time Oberst compositions.
i feel i should spare you all the PR cud chewin' for this album, debating over whether it's a Bright Eyes follow-up or a straight Conor Oberst record, and just treat it for what it is: a real chance for Conor to redeem himself, get his head screwed on straight and get on with making albums like how he used to. on this LP, he manages all three.
now if you've read this far, the chances are you're a Bright Eyes fan and have bought/downloaded/whatever this album already, and made your judgement. if that judgement is one of negativity and despair, missing the days when he'd spill his guts to you on CD like it was over the phone with a dear friend, i'd say get over it. he's almost thirty or something now, no one is that angsty forever. Cassadaga had it's low points, but one feels after listening to this record that was just a hiccup, a blip on an otherwise upward trajectory. give Conor Oberst another listen. hell, give Cassadaga another listen just to make sure you weren't cavin' in to fan-boy pressure when you said it sucked.
Conor Oberst - I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)