Reviews

Cassadaga

Author: Dan Shvartsman
04/10/2007 | 30music.com | www.30music.com | Album Review
Whatever the case may be – hate him, love him, or feel somewhat ambivalent – you have to admit that Conor Oberst is a pretty interesting musician. Pretentious, warbling, self-indulgent; sure, those adjectives all apply, but he tends to grab our attention all the same. Last time out it was with his two disparate discs in one-day move, and now he's gone back to the one disc at a time format with Cassadaga.

Similarly, with all this talk and hype around Bright Eyes, each new disc becomes simultaneously an event and the one, the disc that is finally going to validate all the hype and put Oberst in the canon forever and ever. We've become accustomed to indie rock expanding well beyond its typical underground boundaries, but remember that I'm Wide Awake…and Digital Ash…were probably the first discs from an "indie" artist released on an indie label to be eagerly awaited and then to rise up the charts (both reached the top 15 on Billboard). And they lived up to their promise no less.

So now Bright Eyes is back; what have they given us this time? Press materials suggest Cassadaga plays America to I'm Wide Awake…as New York, the latter was the political album and this is the live and love and then politics album, and if we all get lazy and revert to Dylan, we might say this is Oberst's Blonde on Blonde whereas the last one was, say, Freewheelin'. There's a kernel of truth and a lot of bullshit in each of these characterizations: the namedrops and stories are about Los Angeles and Florida and the Paris of the South instead of Brooklyn and the wee hours, there are no outright screeds but instead a heavy sense of our times underlying many of the songs and lyrics, when Oberst does channel Dylan, it is in the fuller sound sense of BoB; but despite all that, dropping names does not necessarily make the album a national one, politics are of secondary importance anyway, and, well, it's not fucking Blonde on Blonde.

What it is, then, is another very good collection of songs that shows growth and confidence and maturity on the part of Bright Eyes as a whole unit. Despite over-fulfilling 30's request for a longer album (this one goes over the hour mark), there are no dull moments, with the possible exception of the scene setter and introduction, "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," an indulgence of spoken word and odd sonic structure that we can excuse, especially because it is followed by a stellar series of tunes.

First is the single, "Four Winds," which is no world-beater, but is irresistibly enjoyable in its fiddle play, driving melody, and Oberst's unique and over-thought lyricism. "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" follows as maybe the quintessential song on the album, a clear album track that does much more than its counterparts on past albums. When Oberst leads into the first chorus with, "I never thought of running, my feet just led the way" and the drums build and his voice cracks and the strings sneak in, the album feels whole.

It grows and grows, whether on fast tracks spotted with stellar one-liners like 'Hot Knives" and "I Must Belong Somewhere," the shockingly pretty pop number, "Make a Plan to Love Me," or undeniably tasty darker shaded tunes like "Middleman" and "Cleanse Song," both of which actually fulfill Cassadaga's promise to be an American album.

At the bottom of everything is the centerpiece, "Soul Singer in a Session Band," which shows all of Oberst's strengths in one four minute song. There's the euphoric chorus with the great drum hits, The Band production, Oberst's most impassioned singing, and his so "too clever by half" lyrics that they become doubly effective. This could be the best Bright Eyes song yet, arrogantly humble in its scope.

And yet, this album isn't the magnum opus we've been waiting for from Oberst ever since he started rising out of his emo king status of so long ago. Cassadaga is a very good, even great album, but it's no masterpiece. The second half especially just doesn't quite get there, even if it does remain very interesting.

On the one hand, maybe we're asking too much and shouldn't worry about it; on the other hand, Oberst does still seem to be at the top of his game and growing, and even if he's losing that youthful precocious factor, well, he's still got plenty of time. As long as the stops on the way are as good as this, we'll keep coming along for the ride.
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