But though this album may be more mature—and country—than previous Bright Eyes records, it's hard to reconcile Oberst's explorations of mortality, love, and time with his occasional emo episodes of self-indulgence.
The first track, "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," opens with a lo-fi recording of a woman's voice advocating a road trip to Cassadaga, Fla., and other locations of spirituality and energy where one might find "vortexes" and eventual life change.
In the background, an orchestra grates out dissonant tones that gradually climax and make way for Oberst's lyrics.
He delivers a tired outline of the modern condition: "Future Markets, Holy Wars…the freedom-fighting simulcast…the polar icecaps centrifuge…First snowman built at the end of June…fifteen-minute fame." Oberst eventually asks, "Would you agree times have changed?"
The next song, "Four Winds," busts through with a welcome energy, cheerful violin riffs, and driving guitar chords.
He sings, again, of the crises of modernity and the start of a journey "back." And though he does so poetically ("And I was off to old Dakota where a genocide sleeps / In the black hills, the bad lands, the calloused east"), one wonders exactly what he's singing about.
In his confused attempt at writing the metaphysical tune, Satan makes an appearance, as does an unnamed girl, a squatter, a Mexican, and of course, Oberst himself, at the center of it all.
Things take a pretty exciting and promising turn with "Hot Knives," which is reminiscent (before the orchestration and hyper-production kick in) of Jeff Buckley. The track also contains one of the album's most memorable and charming lines: "Oh, I've made love, yeah, I've been fucked, so what? / I'm a cartoon, you're a full moon, let's stay up."
This is Bright Eyes at some of its best: youthfully articulate, refreshingly sentimental.
It's during these moments, within the mostly disjointed and angst-ridden "Cassadaga," that flashes of simple honesty become insights into the album's main theme: Oberst's personal longing for love in a world of uncertainty and pain.
In the song "Make a Plan to Love Me," he sings, "Life is too short / To be a fool / I don't owe you that / Do what you feel / Whatever is cool / But I just have to ask / Will you make a plan to love me?"
These moments reveal him for what in part, he is: a young, emotional musician who just needs a little lovin'.
These occasional moments of triviality and ineloquence undermine Oberst's intellectual and emotional authority—and yet, they're undeniably sweet and charming. Ergo, the listener's dilemma.
It's easy to have conflicting opinions about "Cassadaga." At one moment, Oberst seems to be an immensely thoughtful songwriter addressing urgent issues of modern life.
But at the next, he seems to be just another young sentimentalist who wants to say anything and everything at once.
Maybe Oberst's fragile voice, big watery eyes, and quotidian poetry make us doubt the legitimacy of his existential dilemmas. But when he's so darned likeable, why question it?
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3