Reviews

Cassadaga

Author: Joan Anderman
04/15/2007 | Boston Globe | www.boston.com | Album Review
Don't be fooled by the spectral decoder that comes with Bright Eyes' new album. You'll need it to decipher the artwork, but, ironically, this most whimsical of packages contains the most down-to-earth music of Conor Oberst's career.

The lo-fi eclectism, 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.

``I was a hopeless romantic/Now I'm just turning tricks,'' Oberst announces in a rollicking waltz called Soul Singer in a Session Band, which features Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss and M. Ward on groggy harmony vocals. But Oberst isn't selling out. On the contrary, his feels like a thoroughly natural musical evolution.

On 2005's simultaneously released I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst aspired to make concise musical sense without sacrificing raw emotion. Cassadaga -- named after a Florida spiritualist community teeming with psychic mediums -- delivers on the wildly unlikely promise that very young, very gifted artists can grow up without losing their balance.

At 27, the onetime wunderkind is now 13 years into his career, and not surprisingly Oberst's concerns -- like his sonic palette -- have expanded and grown more conservative. He plumbs a complicated romance with a Type A lover (Make a Plan to Love Me) and an older woman (Classic Cars), rails at the misguided politics of war (Four Winds, No One Would Riot for Less), and finds murky poetry in getting sober (Cleanse Song, If the Brakeman Turns My Way).

The recorded voice of a clairvoyant and the fragmented orchestrations that filter through the six-minute opening track, Clairaudients, are a tease: Halfway through the song turns sweet and folky, and earthiness colors nearly everything that follows.

It's notable that Bright Eyes, once a fluid collective that ebbed and flowed around Oberst, is now a solid, three-piece lineup of longtime collaborators. Multi-instrumentalist/producer Mike Mogis and keyboardist/arranger Nate Walcott have cobbled together a loose-limbed world of pedal-steel guitars and surging pianos, vibraphones and glockenspiels, strings and woodwinds, and an ethereal girl chorus. In such a disorderly world, it seems, simple, stable footing is no small gift.

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