Conner Oberst has certainly been busy! His band, Bright Eyes, has just released their third LP in as many years with Cassadaga - which, at the very least, wins the award for shortest Bright Eyes album name. Oberst is no stranger to strangeness, and many curious questions surround this release.
Fans have wondered which Oberst they would be exposed to with this release - the nostalgic, tumbleweed twang of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning or the bitter, mechanized coldness of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, both released in 2005. In reality, Cassadaga is more like the predecessors of that double-release, 2002's Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Put Your Ear to the Ground.
This return is a welcome event, since Lifted offered Oberst's best soul-squeezing folk yet. But compared to the aforementioned two, Cassadaga is without a doubt more like the natural I'm Wide Awake. However, the sound is a lot more lush; the familiar acoustic guitar is now wrapped firmly with a blanket of string instruments and flutes that were until now alien to Oberst's style.
Cassadaga is long and sprawling, but deliberate and even-paced. Only a single song is under four minutes, but only two go above six. This is exactly the way that Oberst wanted it, and for the most part, it works. Cassadaga is painted as a mysterious, imaginary place where Oberst's mind drifts, a place where "the best country singers die in the back of classic cars" and "you're going to find the center of energy," as Oberst sings. He revisits old ideas, like the soul singers from "Lover I Don't Have to Love," and creates new vistas for his listeners.
Oddly enough, the songs are actually staler when he sticks to the tried and true, stripped-down country formula that has worked so well in the past. This time around, they just don't have the muscle to keep up with the new landscapes Bright Eyes creates; hopefully, this is the sign of another transition and not just a few quirky experiments to entertain Oberst's creativity.
At this point, it's probably safe to say that Oberst is incapable of writing a flat-out bad song, or, at the very least, an uninteresting one. It's easy to be bewitched by the honesty of his words and the sheer diversity of music that he packages them in. However, it's also probably true that he never has, and never will, reach the heaven-high standards that were tagged on his back when he first crashed into the indie rock mainstream. This tendency will probably work in his favor, though, since listeners will grow tired of listening for the next Bob Dylan and just sit back and enjoy the excellent songwriting of this young talent.
It's tough to say whether Oberst has improved with age, because his words were unusually mature even as a young teen. But he's kept the self-indulgences that triggered a few grimaces in the past to an impressive minimum. There are no cheap, misdirected nods at Beethoven like "Road to Joy" here. Nor are there tracks that open with a particularly emo-sounding Oberst sipping coffee and talking about a plane crash like on "At the Bottom of Everything" - though the opener, "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" comes close with its clairvoyant narrator.
But Cassadaga is just another effortless victory for Oberst's fragile emotions. He's made a career out of self-reflection and uncertainty; the biggest tragedy now would be for Oberst to find an answer to his endless questions.