Reviews

Cassadaga

Author: Paloma Nozicka
04/12/2007 | Wisconsin Badger-Herald | www.badgerherald.com | Album Review
If anyone is tired of hearing the comparison between Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst and folk legend Bob Dylan, it is most likely Oberst himself. The wide-eyed indie darling, whose breakout albums I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash In a Digital Urn earned him critical acclaim in 2005, has been referred to as "the next Dylan" countless times by both the media and music fans alike due to his distinct warble, folksy riffs and politically charged statements interwoven in his lyrics.

The comparison between the artists may be stale, but listeners can still hear traces of Dylan's influence on Bright Eyes' latest album, Cassadaga.

The much-anticipated album (named after a psychic commune in Florida) is ushered in by a woman, presumably a Cassadaga soothsayer, describing Cassadaga as a "center of energy." As she continues to speak, the sound of a tuning orchestra creeps in, mixing with the woman's voice and growing louder and louder until it eventually overwhelms her. Just as the orchestra noises escalate into an almost terrifying sound, it fades away as an acoustic guitar gently takes its place. Oberst's voice chimes in sweetly, warning listeners that in this life it's "kill or be killed." The song ends with Oberst asking, "Would you believe times have changed?" a lyric directly reminiscent of Dylan's folk classic, "The times, they are a-changin'." The woman's voice then speaks for a final time, ending the song with the cryptic statement, "There are a lot of people who do not believe."

Thus begins Cassadaga, a mesmerizing album that showcases a newfound sophistication and musical maturity that had been lacking in Bright Eyes' past. Cassadaga seems to be divided into two parts: while the opening songs are folksy, rollicking tunes that sound like spin-offs of Wide Awake's "Another Travelin' Song," the later songs are swelling, orchestral melodies that take full advantage of the album's guest musicians (including Ben Kweller and M. Ward), not to mention permanent band member and producer Mike Mogis, the man responsible for Cassadaga's all-encompassing sound.

One of the most noticeable differences on Cassadaga in comparison to other Bright Eyes albums is the wide variety of instruments and experimental sounds used. "Four Winds," Cassadaga's first single, is a twangy, fiddle-laden ditty, while "Make a Plan to Love Me," the album's most obvious love song, recalls the sounds of 1950s doo-wop. On the beautifully crafted "Coat Check Dream Song," Bright Eyes completely breaks out of its emo/folk mold by making use of Arabic chant at the song's end, furthering the sense of mysticism that follows through the entire album.

However, the slicker, more produced sound of Bright Eyes does have its drawbacks. On "Hot Knives," the pulsing violins and female back-up vocals seem to overwhelm the song, making it harder for listeners to focus on humorously illustrative lyrics like "I'm a cartoon/ You're a full moon/ Let's stay up." And while "Make a Plan to Love Me" is beautiful, its woozy sound is almost sickening, making me wish that Oberst had gone with a more simplistic arrangement like that of "First Day of My Life" from Wide Awake.

Also surprising is the lack of politics on Cassadaga. While Wide Awake practically crackles with anger over the United States' political problems, Cassadaga merely acknowledges them and sails on. On the track "No One Would Riot For Less," lyrics like "Little soldier, little insect/ You know war has no heart/ It will kill you in the sunshine/ Or just as happily in the dark" sound contrived, while "Four Winds" makes reference to the Bible, Torah and Quran without really saying anything at all.

Other gems on the album include the twangy, up-tempo "Everything Must Belong Somewhere," in which Oberst shares a positive outlook on the world, and "Cleanse Song," a laidback song that after one listen makes the listener feel, well, cleansed.

The album ends with the delicate "Lime Tree," a wistful song that perfectly concludes Cassadaga. The song is the perfect blend of both Bright Eyes styles, beginning with Oberst's voice echoing over an acoustic guitar and slowly layering in the orchestral flourishes found in previous tracks. Oberst is neither angst-ridden nor passive as he contemplates different stages of his life, including the time in which he was addicted to cocaine. This rawness of emotion makes "Lime Tree" the most personal and thus most moving song on Cassadaga; its simplicity makes up for the overbearing arrangements on other tracks and provides a flawless culmination to an excellent album.
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