Your neighborhood bookstore might help you discover a purpose-driven life, but rock 'n' roll has answers, too. Soothing your misery at the foot of a jukebox is only a temporary solution, but who's going to turn down some short-term respite? Certainly not Bright Eyes.
On "Cassadaga," the folksy outfit fronted by Conor Oberst (and now featuring permanent members Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott) turns its lonely eyes to the good and bad ways aimless people try to rediscover themselves. "Cassadaga" isn't really about advice, but rather examples of how the disaffected, disgruntled and distraught youth of the Bush era attempt to cope.
In the country-soul twang of "Classic Cars," a young man finds solace in servicing the needs of an older woman. A prostitute declares, "When I do wrong, I am with God" in "Hot Knives," as if she's an attention-starved kid and her Creator is a busy parent. In other songs, people take refuge in political conflict, fortune tellers and rationalization.
A man – quite possibly Oberst himself – finds relief from modern pressures in riding the rails and coasting on luck on "If the Brakeman Turns My Way." With the release of the 2005 two-fer "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," Oberst was presented by some as the new Bob Dylan – a pressure-accompanying title, if there ever was one. You sure we can't compare him to Hank Williams and John Lennon? How about Mark Twain?
While Dylan's ragged suit still doesn't quite fit, Oberst remains the boy most likely to grow into it. The 27-year-old Nebraska native not only tells great stories, he tells them in a great way.
"Cassadaga" proves he still has his way with the English language. Oberst knows when to get clever – "You mean nothing to no one but it's nobody's fault," he smirks on "Soul Singer in a Session Band" – and he knows when to pipe down – restraining himself to soothing repetition on the subdued "Make a Plan to Love Me."
Sonically, this full-sounding record erupts like a volcano, but gradually creeps to a halt. Kickoff track "Clairaudients" spews orchestration and pretentious nonsense, the record then flows through a few jangly (if sometimes stuffy) country ballads and eventually comes to a halt on the stark hymn "Lime Tree."
When "Cassadaga" eases into the last line of that last song, it finishes an answer. Oberst whisper-sings, "I felt lost and found with every step I took," observing that while it's usually wise to keep moving through life, occasionally it's good to stop and take stock of what's around you.
And that's fairly conclusive for a record about aimlessness.
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