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Bright Eyes - Cassadaga Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    6
sound:    6
release year:    2007
label:    Saddle Creek
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageNow a full 15 years after a wave of proletariat indie rock bands made objects of derision out of any artist who was convinced that he or she had something important to say, Bright Eyes Conor Oberst is one of the rarest creatures in the post-modern era, succeeding not in spite of taking himself too seriously, but largely because of it. Now six full-length albums into his career – having grown from over-emoting 16-year-old prodigy to the angry young man of folk rock – he already has a body of work that very few songwriters will ever approach. If an artist is measured by the company he keeps, Oberst is already confirmed royalty, sharing stages with Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and increasingly padding his resume as an artist who takes stands and holds to them despite the commercial or creative consequences. Because he’s a genuinely fascinating character – full of doubt, indignation and self-destructiveness – nearly every excess can be forgiven when refracted through the prism of Oberst’s personal experience. With Cassadaga, it turns out that the window into his life has become a mirror.

As much as Oberst has been hailed as the Bob Dylan for Generation Y, it’s interesting how his career arc often finds him drifting in the opposite direction. Sure, Oberst is exploring a similar fascination with country and roots music at roughly the same age Dylan went to Nashville and severed his ties from the folk revival once and for all. But where Dylan grew weary of being a symbol of social consciousness and increasingly turned inward with each succeeding album, Oberst is now turning away from the rich subtext of his inner life and is fixing his gaze on the concerns of the world. Unfortunately, however desperate and dangerous, the world is not nearly as interesting as Oberst is, and Cassadaga struggles to find a focal point more engaging than the skeletons in his mind’s closet.
Promisingly enough, the album opens with a murky din of ominous strings coming to life while a New Age spiritualist offers vague platitudes about mysticism and truth, with Oberst entering with a lullaby melody and a sparkling backdrop of pedal steel and swirling strings. It’s an arresting moment, the intimacy and eeriness of the arrangement and Oberst’s hushed vocals making his warnings of “revolution at a lower price” and holy wars and snake oil salesmen a suitable match for the apocalyptic swirl of strings and horns. But after that arresting opener, Oberst offers little in the way of narrative or pointed criticism, instead drifting into clumsy indictments of religion, government and war that manage to not say much of anything.

It’s hard to know exactly what to take from the heavy-handed allusions to “the great Satan” and “whore of Babylon” that pop up in the otherwise rollicking “Four Winds,” with the trail of hoedown fiddles and ringing organs adding weight to his vivid warnings. Similarly, the lonely and elegiac “If the Brakemen Turns My Way” is saturated with restlessness and worry, but it’s difficult to say exactly what tortures the narrator. His most obvious stab at narration – his greatest strength as a songwriter – falls flat on “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” his belabored attempt to draw parallels between his plight and that of an artist who doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “I was a hopeless romantic/now I’m just turning tricks,” he says with a probing directness, but it’s a metaphor that doesn’t match the power of the sentiment.

Most disappointing, considering the potential potency of the material he’s exploring, is just how staid his performances are and how little outrage he actually manages. The explosively titled “No One Would Riot for Less” ends up being a bit of a bore despite the talk of “the madness of government” and the indiscriminate violence of war, its reverb strings and subtly echoing backing vocals struggling to pump some urgency into Oberst’s attempt to match his longing for emotional safety and shelter into a compelling metaphor for the displacement and desperation of our times. As he watches “an empire end” in “Cleanse Song,” his only solution is to suggest some laughter, though the primitive percussion, chirping triangle and clarinet that swirl around the strummed acoustic guitar prop up one of Oberst’s most humorless and least interesting choruses.

When he turns back to himself on the delicately haunted “Make a Plan to Love Me,” with strings and cooing female vocals making it the album’s most convincing country-politan homage, he instantly becomes a compelling character in his own narrative. Similarly, the closing “Lime Tree” is appropriately hushed and vulnerable, with Oberst musing on his restlessness, constant displacement and neglected friendships while the light hum of strings and backing vocals add a discordant final note to the album. At the last possible moment, he offers a reminder of what he does best, and if the entire album had benefited from such damaged humility, it could have easily ranked among his best work, giving voice to a generation’s feelings of helplessness instead of railing against clichés.

Having arrived at a creative crossroads with his two 2005 releases, the folk-tinged I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and the electronic pop of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst carries his infatuation with country music to fruition with a series of arrangements that split the difference between the Band and Van Dyke Parks. Musically, Oberst sounds a bit miscast as a country-folk troubadour, with a note-perfect backing band lending his music a gloss that wipes off the endearingly amateurish fingerprints and cathartic outbursts that previously marked his work. And while the textures are immaculately arranged and perfectly executed, Oberst’s work has often thrived at being just rough enough around the edges to add extra weight his sentiments. These songs are too pristine to seem at all lived-in.

Appropriately, Oberst’s solution to all the chaos and pain in the world is to end up back at home, turning inward at the last moment, his helplessness and weariness reaching an uneasy resolution in “I Must Belong Somewhere.” He doesn’t exactly end up with an answer, but there is hope that everything eventually ends up where it belongs, with the plaintive pedal steel and cheery organ sounding a serene note that is quickly shattered by the uncertain final note of “Lime Tree.” Though he spends much of the album treading heavily through territory that doesn’t suit his skills as a writer, he has created an album that is – intentional or not – every bit as confused and unclear as the world he critiques.

Easily the most elaborately produced and slick sounding record in the Bright Eyes canon, Cassadaga might frustrate those with a weakness for the lo-fi largesse of previous albums. In fact, if it weren’t for the subject matter and Oberst’s wavering voice, these are songs that could conceivably end up on Top 40 country radio; the by-the-numbers fiddles and weepy pedal steel aspire to be little more than a convincing equivalent of modern Americana. Technically speaking, this is the best-sounding Bright Eyes album, with the brightest and cleanest textures and most adventurous production. Still, one can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be more interesting if the performers weren’t quite so sure of themselves.

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