The 27-year-old singer-songwriter behind Bright Eyes has been celebrated and shamed for his prolific writing slate and release schedule. It's been a roller coaster of quality and a steady rise of success, last documented with his double release of the acoustic "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and electronic "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" full-length CDs in January 2006.
He triumphantly returns today with "Cassadega," a brawny meditation on people and places - without naming too many names or getting too specific.
The poetic album is home to many Bright Eyesisms, both endearing and annoying.
Oberst has been drawing the Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen comparisons for nearly a decade, with his music's Midwestern ethos and his lyrics' seeming older than his years. And while that was a valid criticism in 2000 when Bright Eyes' "Fevers and Mirrors" propelled the band out of rock clubs, Oberst since has found his own voice and style.
His music draws from the country western of Hank Williams, the rock 'n' roll of Tom Petty and the literate folk of Willie Nelson. His words are his own, and while he's lost them in the past into pools of shakily self-aware vocals, Oberst and his producers keep them above the murk here. It's obvious he wants you to understand every word of "Cassadega," a nice allowance as the words here are more captivating than the music.
Spoken word, too
Oberst has fun with the jumpily verbose "Four Winds," singing hard, twangy vowels and experimenting with a stripped-down band. "Classic Cars" plays the other side, with soft vowels, crisp consonants and wordplay that hints at the severely natural - and also learned - talents of this young man from Omaha.
Oberst's addiction to including conversations, voice mails and faux-interviews in his music unfortunately continues here with the first track, rendering the first two minutes of the album useless. After you get past the woman's voice and the symphonic bombast, though, "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" is one of the album's gems.
Similar to the 90-second spoken intro to "I'm Wide Awake's" excellent opening track "At The Bottom of Everything" and the post-song rant after "Attempt to Tip the Scales" before that, the off-putting monologue is more a
nuisance than an addition. But once you're into the song, you get Oberst's wavering voice and unwavering guidance and inimitably artful prose.
"To the counterculture copyright/Get your revolution at a lower price/Or make believe and throw the fight/Play dead/It's exploding bags, aerosol cans/Southbound buses, Peter Pan/They left it up to us again/I thought you knew the drill/It's kill or be killed."
This record is his strongest lyrical offering to date, although fans in search of "I'm Wide Awake's" undeniable melodies won't find them as plentiful in this mostly down-tempo offering. "I Must Belong Somewhere" and "Hot Knives" are kind, upbeat respites heavy on the pedal steel, but they're far from required. Oberst weaves a quiet, '60s-tinged waltz like "Make a Plan To Love Me" into a bragging ballad such as "Soul Singer in a Session Band" like nobody else, and there's never a boring moment with Oberst.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3