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You will find a stronger-willed, stronger-voiced Oberst. And the new album is largely devoid of the unnerving, angst-ridden outbursts the singer-songwriter is known for. At its core, "Cassadaga" is part travelogue, part social commentary. Here are their song-by-song impressions:
1. "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)"
An unsettling, off-kilter mix of demented strings, eerie babble and a mellow tune that really works well. The lyrics are inspired and fresh with a bit of a political bent. A good embodiment of what makes Bright Eyes so unusual and good at the same time.
2. "Four Winds"
Conor's gone country in a stomping tune with fiddle and twangy acoustic riffs. Of course, the cheery sound is balanced by lyrics teetering toward the dark side. A solid song.
3. "If the Brakeman Turns My Way"
A soft piano ballad that isn't one of the best on the album. It features a more mainstream and approachable sound that doesn't quite seem to fit. More cheesy than touching.
4. "Hot Knives"
A sweeping, soaring tune built around a fuzzy guitar riff and a coupled voice effect. Features that signature Oberst drama - his ability to be almost more a storyteller than a songwriter.
5. "Make a Plan to Love Me"
Light and sweet strings in this unrequited love ballad are unexpected, but the result is pretty good. As for the sound, it's musical theater meets doo-wop. Almost.
6. "Soul Singer in a Session Band"
This rumbling battle hymn perfectly fits the alliterative, cadence-driven lyrics. A foot-stomper.
7. "Classic Cars"
Breezy, acoustic instrumentation gives this ode about an older woman a sweet, easy-going folk vibe.
A tuneful, plaintive song with a mess of percussion and woodwinds. One of the album's best tracks.
9. "Cleanse Song"
Oberst's gift for crafting story-songs shines on this tune of rejuvenation. "On a detox walk through a Glendale park over sidewalk chalk, someone wrote in red, 'start over,' he sings. "So I muffled my scream on an Oxnard beach, full of fever dreams that scare you sober into saltless dinners."
10. "No One Would Riot for Less"
Oberst's trademark emotional vocal quiver, while largely absent from "Cassadaga," shows up here over a wall of sweeping, cinematic orchestration.
11. "Coat Check Dream Song"
Mesmerizing and mystical with elegant orchestration and an exotic chant thrown in toward the end.
12. "I Must Belong Somewhere"
A jaunty toe-tapper punctuated by rollicking mandolin and dobro and lots of rhymes. Oberst is at his best when he points his lyrical lens outward, instead of inward.
13. "Lime Tree"
A pensive, melancholy ballad that opens with lyrics seemingly about an abortion: "I keep floating down the river but the ocean never comes/ Since the operation I heard you're breathing just for one/ Now everything is imaginary, especially what you love/ You left another message said it's done/ It's done." Graceful melodies supplied by a string section add to the tune's emotional depth and dirge-like quality.
What others are saying about "Cassadaga"
It wasn't long ago (2003) that Conor Oberst was defiantly performing his lacerating single "When the President Talks to God" on late-night TV.
Oberst, who makes music under the Bright Eyes banner, was the MySpace generation's angry young man. Oberst's political beliefs were threatening to overwhelm his work, drowning his gifts in a sea of seething rhetoric.
What a difference three years make: Oberst is no less infuriated, but he's dialed down the volume.
The best, most consistent record Oberst has crafted in the last five years, "Cassadaga" is strewn with references to cleansing, taking stock of life and determining a clear path. These 13 tracks achieve a kind of ragged, majestic peace.
- Preston Jones, Fort-Worth Star Telegram
Don't be fooled by the spectral decoder that comes with the new Bright Eyes album. You'll need it to decipher the artwork, but, ironically, this most whimsical of packages contains the most down-to-earth music of indie auteur Conor Oberst's career.
The lo-fi eclecticism, the mad rush of words, the callow whispers and shredded screams are all but gone - replaced by lush, expansive songs. "Cassadaga" is a country-rock record - thoroughly Americana in sound, spirit and setting - with only a whiff of the trembling teen from Omaha whose literate, unhinged soul scrapings have fed a generation of young devotees.
- Joan Anderman, the Boston Globe
Excess helped make Conor Oberst endearing. He has been almost too sincere, too articulate, too sensitive, too self-conscious and too ambitious. Yet all that passion added up to a precocious charm.
But he's not a teenager from Nebraska anymore: He's one of indie rock's biggest stars. And he paused to think about it, which can be a mistake.
String and wood arrangements on "Cassadaga" can be exquisite, like the full-blown 1960s-style pop of "Make a Plan to Love Me." But they also make the songs sound less spontaneous, and so do lyrics that strain toward Bob Dylan's oracular tone: "When Great Satan is gone, the Whore of Babylon /She just can't sustain the pressure where it's placed/She caves," Oberst sings in the folky shuffle of "Four Winds."
Oberst is searching for a more mature style. But the musical and rhetorical convolutions of "Cassadaga" are no substitute, yet, for the way he used to blurt things out.
- Jon Pareles, the New York Times
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