However, it doesn't take a medium to predict this album is going to be a hit with both newcomers and longtime fans of the band.
Cassadaga has more of an alt-country flair than Bright Eyes' previous offerings. The album's first single, "Four Winds," sounds like lead singer Conor Oberst is channeling Bob Dylan. It is rife with biblical allusions -- the four winds in Ezekiel 37 -- and apocalyptic imagery, and its chorus is so catchy you'll be singing it for days.
Another standout is "Middleman," which contains some of the most heartrending string parts ever to grace a contemporary album. The lyrics are beautiful as well, and honestly, half of the reason I listen to this band is because of the lyrical artistry.
Musically, Cassadaga feels more structured than Bright Eyes' previous offerings. It's more radio-friendly and less experimental, even though the opening track features a medium's voice laid over discordant string arrangements. The result is both bizarre and unsettling, like something out of an old horror movie.
Listeners who have complained in the past about Oberst's grating vocals -- and I'm one of them -- will be pleased to hear that they have matured considerably. He seems to have more vocal control, and though there are still grating moments, he manages not to sound whiny, for the most part.
Oberst has also matured in other ways. The songs are less self-centered: There's more narrative and less navel-gazing. If the past few albums felt like an intimate glimpse into the psyche of Oberst, this one feels more like Oberst's intimate tour of the American landscape, both the good and the bad. He doesn't shy away from politics here -- there are plenty of allusions to holy wars and environmental destruction -- but he has evidently gotten old enough to be a little less shrill. For example, you won't find any tracks titled "When the President Talks to God" on this album.
Cassadaga isn't shy on collaborators, either. There are sisters Stacy and Sherri DuPree of the band Eisley on back-up vocals, as well as Rilo Kiley's Jason Boesel and alt-country sensation Gillian Welch. Bright Eyes makes good use of these other artists on the track "Make a Plan to Love Me." It's a love song that narrowly escapes being cheesy, replete with girl group backup vocals dreamily crooning, "Make a plan to love me" over and over again. It's my least favorite track on the album, but I know people who can't get enough of it.
There's almost nothing resembling a misstep or bad track here. If you're a longtime Bright Eyes fan, you'll love it.
If you're new to the band or have been turned off by the group's rougher qualities in the past, then you ought to give Cassadaga a listen.
It's rapidly becoming my favorite album of the year so far.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3