Displaying a new found maturity, Bright Eyes has made the difficult transition from above average songsmith, to serious artist, delivering a record full of weighty ideas and expert execution. Partly a product of the skills and sounds developed on prior albums and partly a brave foray into the unknown, Cassadaga may be the best release of early 2007.
'Clairaudients' opens Cassadaga; the song's title is a reference to spiritualists who speak to the dead; the album's title similarly named for the community of psychics living in central Florida. It is under a backdrop of swirling strings and recorded voices that Bright Eyes introduces us to this community and the album, echoing the kind of creative leap that Wilco attempted with 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
"Just because you get the death card/doesn't mean death's dying/it means transformation," after two-minutes of scene-setting, messages of prophecy and a moaning and rumbling orchestra, the song resolves to Oberst's gentle balladry – this being the first song in a collection of tracks built from alt-country origins to grand passages and epic concerns. The instrumental dominance of 'Clairaudients' is the first sign of Oberst's musical maturation, as the restraint and reflection of his vocal line provides a needed contrast against the tense atmosphere surrounding him.
A more measured lyrical approach is another facet of Oberst's advancement. While he still displays a love of alliteration and allusion, both of which have led to criticisms of insincerity and pretentiousness ("I had a lengthy discussion/about the power of myth/With a Post-Modern author/Who didn't exist"), there is an ever increasing simplicity that takes the listener hand-in-hand through the journey: "I heard your scheming new pyramids/Another big idea to get you rich" ('Make A Plan To Love Me').
The large-scale themes of the album are further truncated by the localisation and intricate details that place the characters of these songs in identifiable places: "I was off to old Dakota where a genocide sleeps/In the black hills, the bad lands, the calloused east" ('Four Winds').
The influence of Dylan and other journeymen is evident in both the music and lyrics of Cassadaga. Up-tempo beats, golden-era organ and violin intermissions on 'Four Winds' reminds of Dylan's violin-led 'Hurricane', and the held notes leading into the chorus on 'If The Brakeman Turns My Way' hark back to the weight of 'Like A Rolling Stone'. More modern musical influences include Calexico, as 'Middleman's' minor stomp haunts the framework of this band during their Feast Of Wire-era.
Such homage to prior sounds is tempered by the ability of Oberst to mesh the new-and-the-old. This skill is the key reason for the album sounding so easily agreeable. Old fans will recognise Oberst's songwriting style and effortless melodies, while the extra instrumentation, unconventional moments and diversity of the album will satisfy those that felt that Bright Eyes never reached the artistic zenith of contemporaries like Wilco.
The layering of the female voices and guest harmonies is another reason behind Cassadaga's success. Following from the devil-may-care pace and derision of 'Hot Knives', Bright Eyes descends from the most riotous track of Cassadaga, to the sentimental and gorgeous embellishments of 'Make A Plan To Love Me'. The vocal harmony of the bridge is the highlight of the record, the refrain of the female backing layered upon one another, rising in steps and resolving in doo-wop enunciations that are underscored by strings. Bright Eyes has entrusted others to bring his songs to life and this belief in collaboration has heightened and diversified his music.
The album is not without dry points ('Soul Singer In A Session Band' and 'I Must Belong Somewhere'), but these are small distractions which do little to lesson the impact of Cassadaga as an album.
With the 2005 double release of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, Bright Eyes proved diversity. But there still existed a number of lingering doubts about his artistic credentials. With Cassadaga any remaining questions about his merit can be laid to rest. Oberst, the band, and their collaborators, have created something special in Cassadaga, an album that is at times poignant and at others playful; the first classic of 2007.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3