So perhaps it was intentional self-sabotage when Oberst released two flawed albums simultaneously in 2005. If "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ashes in a Digital Urn" proved anything, it was that few musicians are so brilliant that they can release even a single record without filler, let alone two at the same time.
Conor Oberst may not be a genius or even a boy any longer (having turned 27 this year), but he is a talent, and it isn't his fault that making protest music means following in the footsteps of some mighty big shoes. Freed from unrealistic expectations, the new "Cassadaga" shows his strengths and faults in a pleasing way.
"Cassadaga" isn't exactly a crash diet after the Great Double Helping of '05, though. The new record is stuffed with 13 songs that clock in at 62 minutes, has a guest list a mile long and seems almost obsessively busy with background cacophony, from the psychic reading in "Clairaudients (Kill or be Killed)" to offhand mumbling in "Middleman." Any extra space is filled by strings and percussion.
It's almost as if Oberst had to get everything out of his system, right down to the cryptic messages hidden on the album cover. But, given enough time to absorb it, "Cassadaga" wins you over with its audacity and its commitment.
The lyrics, as always with Oberst, grapple with the madness devouring the world and the individual. He has become adept at eloquent dissent ("I Must Belong Somewhere"), and there is humor with the passionate anger. The music is spry in its variety. From the jaunty country honk of "Four Winds" and "I Must Belong Somewhere" to the plaintive "Cleanse Song" and the easy-listening pop of "Make a Plan to Love Me," this is an album that demands enough hearings to appreciate each song on its own merits. Despite the genre-hopping, Mike Mogis--the producer and the only other longtime band member--manages to keep the proceedings relatively seamless. Nate Walcott, who joined in 2003, adds valuable support on keyboards and string arrangements.
Some records reveal themselves slowly. "Cassadaga" is dense enough that it will strike some as pretentious, others as overly complicated. Better to think of it as a river with many tributaries that meet and diverge. Best, it shows that Conor Oberst has room to grow.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3