Reviews

Four Winds

Author: Stephen M Deusner
03/06/2007 | Pitchforkmedia.com | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
All those Bob Dylan comparisons that greeted Bright Eyes' previous albums may have prompted courteous denials from Conor Oberst, but he understood what prompted that praise. He knows we need an artist who can record the troubles of the times and spark activism in an indifferent populace, and bless him, he's trying to rise to the occasion. On the Four Winds EP he sets aside the angst-rock of Lifted, Desaparecidos, and the beatscapes of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn in favor of Neil Young-at-heart folk-rock that sounds like his idea of populism. He's trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. If this bid for accessibility worked well enough on I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, which debuted in the Billboard Top 10, it seems to work even better on "Four Winds", thanks to Anton Patzner's fierce violin work and Bright Eyes' now permanent line-up.

Not many other singers today-- maybe Win Butler-- could get away with so many mentions of both the Whore of Babylon and the Great Satan in one song. Despite Oberst's assertion that "the Bible's blind, the Torah's deaf, the Koran is mute/ If you burned them all together, you'd get close to the truth," his apocalypse is squarely Judeo-Christian in nature. But his lyrical imagery, obsessed as it is with the end of the world, slips easily between the local and the universal, the earthly and the spiritual-- drawing together cosmic collapse, American genocide, and squatters in an abandoned building creating a graffiti mural "with 15 cans of spraypaint in a chemical swirl." "Four Winds" is the rare protest song that actually tries to present an epic vision of America and succeeds.

The remaining five non-album tracks on Four Winds expound on the folk-rock sound of the opener, pulling it in different directions, but nothing else hits the mark so squarely-- or really at all. "Reinvent the Wheel" is Oberst's "Needle and the Damage Done", but without a needle, or really any damage. It's another ode to a friend, but following the title track, it sounds almost tediously fatuous. "Smoke Without Fire" has more gravity-- and M. Ward to boot. As Oberst draws a questionable comparison between inner fears with "painted whores who won't stay the night," the song builds slowly into a Morricone epic, then ends abruptly, as if the band saw the nowhere it was headed.

As Four Winds progresses, the songs' large scope becomes shaky and Oberst's songwriting shakier. With its classic-rock riffs and tentative jams, "Stray Dog Freedom" naively equates poverty with independence: "We tried to name him, but he ran away/ Once he knew his freedom was at stake." "Cartoon Blues" fares better, as Oberst's electronic-age ire propels the band's pounding performance. But he sings "the blues" like he's only read about them, and his story about sparring with a poet is unconvincing and self-aggrandizing.

Oberst's greatest asset might be his own self-loathing: Even as he lashes out about the state of the world, he's at his best and most compelling when he implicates himself in all his anger and scorn, aware that there's no other choice than to be part of the world but sick of himself just the same. On "Tourist Trap", the EP's sober closer, he muses that his own activism-- in the form of recording and touring behind angry songs like "Four Winds"-- has left him alone and unable to enjoy the world: "The road finally gave me back, but I don't think I'll unpack/ 'Cause I'm not sure if I live here anymore." Times like this, everybody must get stoned.
Four Winds

Four Winds

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