Reviews

Cassadaga

Author: Brian Howe
04/09/2007 | Pitchforkmedia.com | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
At 27, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst already has enough career behind him to establish a trajectory. His rise has been uncannily similar to writer Dave Eggers': Both came under public scrutiny for self-conscious, ego-driven Artistic Statements-- Eggers with his meta-memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Oberst with his meta-album Fevers and Mirrors. Soon after, both creators shifted focus to more worldly concerns, and have struggled ever since to imbue their work with the empathy and nuance that its often-political leanings demand. Both have heartfelt ambitions that frequently result in Holden Caulfield-like jabs at consumer culture, religion, and U.S. militarism. And both were generally more fun when they were hermetic.

As Oberst's lyrical themes broaden, his music is following suit. Cassadaga, taking its name from a spiritualist camp in Florida where Oberst spent some time, is a logical continuation of his evolution from haunted lo-fi auteur to country-folk traditionalist, and with it comes the slickest production of any Bright Eyes album to date. Oberst, while retaining the feverish quaver that's become his calling card, finds more mannered ways to express emotion here than sliding in and out of key. The arrangements are unapologetically grand, laden with strings, blaring guitar, and mournful pedal steel. Even the record's packaging seems to declare it an event-- the "spectral decoder" included with the disc translates the artwork's squiggly gray lines into all sorts of pictures and text.

The ambitious arrangements strike just the right balance on some songs: The orchestral work on old-fashioned ballad "Make a Plan to Love Me" never overburdens the song's pliant lilt, while the marching strings in the last verse of "Hot Knives", and the organs that eventually sweep in on the barren "No One Would Riot for Less", provide an acute sense of drama. They also allow Oberst to venture beyond his comfy trad-folk niche: Organic hand percussion, electric piano, and vibraphone bring a Middle Eastern influence to "Coat Check Dream Song" without crossing into caricature-- although the droning Arabic chant at the end comes uncomfortably close to the kind of world music-pillaging we've come to dread from our aging rock stars.

Elsewhere, Oberst's arrangements overreach: "Four Winds", with its squealing guitars and fiddles, sounds like a honky-tonk version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", and the otherwise affecting "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" is held back by its overwrought roots-rock chorus. And the smugness latent in some of the arrangements becomes overt in the problematic lyrics, which cast a shadow over even the best-sounding songs. If only that spectral decoder could reveal hidden depth in lines like, "Heard loud and long the river's Om/ Time marching on to a madman's drum."

This balancing act between obscurity and directness is an attribute Bright Eyes fans are used to: "Don't forget what you've learned, all you give is returned/ And if life seems absurd what you need is some laughter," which at least is an attribute Bright Eyes fans have become accustomed to. But the unbearable condescension masquerading as empathy in "Soul Singer in a Session Band" crosses a line: Does having "a lengthy discussion on The Power of Myth with a postmodern author who didn't exist" really make Oberst "just like" the soul singer in a session band?

The political lyrics are the most troublesome. In his earlier efforts, Oberst was always hard on himself-- the problem is that he's adjusted his scope without adjusting his tone, and now he's just as hard on everyone else. In fact, he hardly appears in these songs, and the self-immolating advice he used to dispense ("Don't degrade yourself the way I do") has given way to self-excluding left-wing boilerplate, all sound and no thunder. "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)", one of several apocalyptically minded songs, gives us "Get your revolution at a lower price"; elsewhere we get banner-wavers like "Little soldier, little insect" and "the madness of the government" that seem to be little more than applause signs. The anti-religion rocker "Four Winds" is particularly egregious, with its cursory references to great Satans, whores of Babylon, and slouching towards Bethlehem.

Political art is necessary given the current world climate, but empty rhetoric and moral superiority aren't going to do the trick. The simplistic, self-righteous thinking that's at the root of today's political impasses is exactly the sort of thinking Oberst engages in here. This is a shame, because on the songs in which Oberst actually casts himself-- the subtle, lovely "Lime Tree", for instance, which is about loneliness and longing and everything he truly understands-- his musical gifts and emotional intelligence come to the fore. If he would address the political through this personal lens, exploring his own complicity in the military-industrial complex he currently lambastes from a false outside perspective, he might arrive at commentary that's more about insight and confrontation than moral flattery.
Cassadaga

Cassadaga

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