You might argue that no album can live up to those expectations, but in its best moments, Cassadaga is brilliant. When it suffers, it's merely a matter of misguided ambition. After the personal and folksy I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, much has been made of this album's political bent. But actually, this Bright Eyes is more spiritual than political — at once rejecting established belief systems and trying to figure out what to follow in their absence.
Fittingly, the CD is packaged in gray-patterned paper that, when viewed under the enclosed "decoder," reveals a myriad of messages and shapes invisible to the naked eye. Inside, we get some of Bright Eyes' grandest sound to date. To hear a track from the album and more about what I think,
Recorded with an orchestral assortment of Conor Oberst's friends and collaborators — including M. Ward on guitar, vocalist Hassan Lemtouni, and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss — the eclectic songs on Cassadaga range from triumphantly defiant to just plain mopey. On "If the Brakeman Turns My Way," Bright Eyes follows the path blazed by Bob Dylan to prove that loaded messages can also rock, as a roving piano chugs alongside a subtle Hammond organ that faintly echoes "Like a Rolling Stone."
But while the multi-layered sound works well on the more frantic numbers like "Classic Cars," Cassadaga derails on several down-tempo numbers, which have too many elements and not enough oomph. The string section only weighs down the plodding "Lime Tree," making me long for the younger, angsty Oberst rather than this drearier version. And though the bass clarinets on "Middleman" give the forlorn lyrics — "the in-between, the absentee / is a beautiful disguise" — a more sinister air, the trance-like chant that comes in at the end is only a distraction.
It seems a silly gripe for an album that contains some of Bright Eyes' most riveting songs to date — including "Brakeman," below — but the best tracks on Cassadaga deserve better company.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3