"Cassadaga" is an ambitious, sprawling, and orchestral collection of songs that are beautiful in a sense that Bright Eyes hasn't been known for on past albums. Oberst's trademark vocal style and sharp lyrics are intact, but this time they are lifted by cinematic string arrangements and a wider focus. Unlike albums such as "Fever and Mirrors" or "Lifted," there is a surprising lack of anguish on display here.
The album opener, "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," is a collection of audio clips and the sound of an orchestra building to a giant crescendo until Oberst begins singing. The first track on any Bright Eyes album is usually hit or miss, with most listeners seeing them as misses. These aural experiments work as mood pieces, but some think they are too pretentious or clunky.
On the second track and lead single "Four Winds," the band kicks up a Nashville-style country anthem as Oberst manages to rhyme "Great Satan's gone" with "the whore of Babylon." Oberst references different religious metaphors throughout the song and the W.B Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" perhaps, with the line "slouching towards Bethlehem."
The next three songs are the highlights of the first half of the album. "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" is an example of Oberst's more mature tone, showing his longing to "find someplace to level out." Even more telling of Oberst's current outlook are the lines "I tried to pass for nothing/but my dreams gave me away."
"Hot Knives" follows with a swirl of acoustic guitar, piano, and violins. It is a snapshot of religious doubt best contained in the lines "When I do wrong I am with God, she thought." Later in the song, Oberst sings "Oh, I've made love/yeah, I've been fucked/so what?" It feels like he is distancing himself from being a kid, putting the things that used to seem so important behind him.
"Make a Plan to Love Me" is all beauty, with boy-girl harmonies and horns seemingly piped in from some forgotten oldies station. So it's fitting when Oberst sings, "Whenever I hear beautiful music/it's always from another time" later on the album.
M. Ward sings back up on the song "Soul Singer in a Session Band", which finds Oberst describing a character that seems to be trapped in their situation. A few lines seem to be autobiographical, namely "I was a hopeless romantic/now I'm just turning tricks."
"Classic Cars" is a mid-tempo ballad filled with lap-steel and backing vocals from Gillian Welch. The lyrics speak of a "royal lady", a mentor of sorts to the narrator. Autobiographical elements come up in lines like "If I get out California I'm going back to my home state/to tell them all that I have made a mistake." If the mentor is real or not will have to be left to speculation, but some say the song is about Conor's former girlfriend Winona Ryder.
"Middleman" is one of the weaker songs on the album, but even it provides evidence of Oberst's growth. "So I have become the middleman/the gray areas are fine/the 'I don't know', the 'Maybe so'/is the only real reply", Conor sings in the last chorus. Oberst shows that growing up is not always clear, that it's not always black or white.
The next track, "Cleanse Song," is a smooth tune filled with electronic blips that sums up the spirit of Oberst's current outlook. Oberst has said it is about a detox program that he went through recently. On past albums his lyrics have been filled with drug references, but this song finds him going on a "detox walk" and getting clean.
"No One Would Riot for Less" is at once the most affecting and political song on the album. The lyrics are filled with images of war and hell, but it isn't overt or one-track. Oberst sings about lovers trying to stay together in what feels like an apocalyptic wasteland of sorts. "So love me now/Hell is coming/could you do it now/Hell is here," Oberst whispers in the chorus. He just sounds drained, and it works.
"Coat Check Dream Song" is filled with weird double vocals and includes Indian chants near the end and is an experiment that doesn't quite fit with the album. It's not a bad song; it just feels a bit like an unfinished doodle.
"Everything Must Belong Somewhere" has Oberst singing a happier tune for once, or at least one that's more soothing than self-critical. "Everything must belong somewhere/I know that now/ that's why I'm staying here," yells Oberst.
The album closer "Lime Tree" is a hauntingly stark track and a perfect close to the album. In interviews, Oberst has said the song is about a friend's abortion. The abortion is alluded to in the lines "Since the operation/I heard you're breathing just for one", with later lyrics feeling like a meditation on the operation. In classic Oberst style, the line "Don't be so amazing/or I'll miss you too much" feels universal and cuts right to your heart.
With "Cassadaga," the wide-eyed poet of "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and the navel-gazing narrator of many of Oberst's songs have met and turned his lyrical gifts outward. The album is ambitious and dizzying, like a camera pointed out of a car window and the blurry photo that results. It's certainly not perfect, but then again the most memorable parts of life aren't.
CD / LP / MP3
CD / LP / MP3
CD / LP / MP3