For the longest time, Omaha, Neb., could be summed up in approximately 15 words or less. But over the past 10 years, the small city, located somewhere in the middle of America, has become a breeding ground for indie-rock musicians, with members from Cursive, the Faint, and, most notably, Bright Eyes calling Omaha home.
This Tuesday, Bright Eyes released its latest effort, Cassadaga, a reflective album laced with raw intensity that is bound to guarantee Bright Eyes a spot somewhere between Warren Buffett and Omaha Steaks in the eyes of the city's natives.
Since lead man Conor Oberst formed the band as a side project in the mid-'90s, Bright Eyes has maintained a consistent style until early 2005, when the band simultaneously released Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. The two albums were completely divergent from each other, as if the band had hit a creative fork in the road and decided to go in both directions. Now, those two roads intersect in Cassadaga.
The collision is most noticeable in the transition into the album's first single, "Four Winds." Cassadaga begins in typical Bright Eyes fashion with "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," an introduction of obscure sounds and voices. Then some soft, simple guitar chimes in, and Oberst humbly takes charge. After the song's slow and gradual build up, the music stops, and an eerie tape recording of a woman's voice starts. Stops. A few seconds' pause. And "Four Winds" crashes in.
The violin riffs, mixed with a carefully placed mandolin, make this song a strong single. Oberst's carefully crafted lyrics, a constant throughout Cassadaga, wrapped around exciting melodies also keep things interesting, boasting lines such as, "The Bible is blind, The Torah is deaf. The Qur'an is mute. / If you burned them all together you'd get close to the truth." "Four Winds" serves as a great song to get the album rolling because it highlights the album's new sound and feel. But things don't stop here; in fact, the album's strong start powers into the third and fourth tracks.
Cassadaga reaches its pinnacle in "Hot Knives," a song that very well could have sat comfortably on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Acoustic guitars and drums dominate the first half of the song with an intensity rivaled only by the lyrics accompanying them. Halfway through the song, the music, melody, and beat entirely change. Guitars are traded for a dobro, and the song is better for the exchange. Here, Oberst is at his best, lyrically and vocally, maintaining a raw and harsh feeling throughout the duration of the song that will please fans both new and old.
One cannot ignore the band's musical talent or Oberst's lyrical masterpieces, however, due to Oberst's unconventional vocals and the band's somewhat perplexing musical constructions, Bright Eyes has remained an acquired taste with its past releases. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning helped bridge the gap for some skeptical listeners, and Cassadaga does the same, offering songs that welcome new listeners with open arms. "Soul Singer in a Session Band," "Middleman," and "I Must Belong Somewhere" all have this effect.
Album after album, Oberst continues to remind people why they listen to music. In that regard, Cassadaga is no different. To call it his best album yet would be a slight overstatement, but one that certainly could be defended. A
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