Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
Bright Eyes Cassadaga Saddle Creek
Conor Oberst has a thing for drawn-out introductions, so what better way to start this review than with a run-on sentence lengthy enough to test the patience of the average reader and, possibly, the most seasoned students of the art of reviewing popular music in this digital age—an age that, incidentally, inspired the title of one of the two albums Bright Eyes released back in January 2005, specifically the inferior of those two albums, known to listeners and creators alike by the ridiculous title Digital Ash in a Digital Urn?
OK. Now that we've got that out of the way, a bit of history:
The other album Bright Eyes put out in January 2005, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, was Oberst's finest hour, and not without lots of practice. After emerging as a prodigious but perilously whiny teen troubadour in the late '90s, the doe-eyed Nebraskan took steps toward coherency and consistency with 2000's Fevers and Mirrors and 2002's Lifted, but both records were profoundly frustrating and in dire need of pruning. As he assembled I'm Wide Awake, Oberst moved to New York and mastered that elusive but all-important trick, self-restraint. He shoveled his lesser efforts into Digital Ash, an ill-conceived electro-pop album, and fashioned I'm Wide Awake as its country-fried antithesis. The result was a near-perfect take on folk-rock for the 21st century, a 10-song classic that cashed in on every bit of Oberst's long-heralded potential. After what seemed like forever, dude had arrived. He was not quite 25.
Two years later, Oberst seems to have figured out what he does best—sort of. Trouble is, he took what works and pushed it to the next logical point and then some, in essence coming full circle. The songs on Cassadaga are once again steeped in folk and country, but this time they're slick—sometimes a little too slick to get a handle on. Dressed up in strings and mushy sentimentality, it's quite the gaudy affair. But amidst all the overproduction and ho-hum songcraft, there remain a few moments of brilliance. In other words, it's the classic bloated Bright Eyes album, only "mature."
Loose—practically shapeless—and drowning in strings, "Clauraudients" begins the album with a long monologue from a woman talking about UFOs or something. Oberst and his trusty acoustic finally appear two minutes in, but his maudlin balladry drifts by without connecting. "Four Winds," on the other hand, draws on I'm Wide Awake's strengths, enlivened country rock, and strays even farther to the country side than normal. It's reminiscent of Whiskeytown, but in a good way.
"If the Brakeman Turns My Way," "Hot Knives" and "Classic Cars" are cut from the same cloth, and each has its merits. Closing song "Lime Tree" is beautifully haunting. But Oberst's songcraft isn't quite as trim and fit as last time out, and the cumulative effect of these songs grouped in with schmaltzy dreck like "Make a Plan to Love Me" and the catchy but overbearing "No One Would Riot For Less" is fatigue. As for his words this time, Oberst remains entranced by spiritual things, from the "ladder to heaven" in "Coat Check Dream Song" to the many overt references in "Four Winds" ("Great Satan," "the Whore of Babylon," "the Son of Man"). His earthly ruminations, however, have shifted from the images of New York that dominated I'm Wide Awake to the American West—California, in particular.
Perhaps his fascination with that more easygoing part of the world contributed to this album's lackadaisical feel. Oberst and his band clearly put a lot of work into Cassadaga, yet it's kind of a mess, the product of, as usual, too much ambition and not enough filters. Conversely, a return listen to I'm Wide Awake confirms its musical and lyrical strength, showing the Oberst should be releasing concise, Astral Weeks kinds of albums, not collections so big that they demand double vinyl. Hopefully he can discover that lowercase truth as he continues to to wander and wonder about Heaven and Earth in pursuit of that other kind with a capital T.
Grade: B- Download: "Four Winds," "Lime Tree" Web: thisisbrighteyes.com
Bright Eyes will appear Sunday, May 20 at the Wexner Center. Click to wexarts.org for tickets.