Monday, November 3, 2008
Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst
SCQ Rating: 75%
So the mastermind of Bright Eyes and co-founder of Saddle Creek records ditches the moniker and abandons his label for a self-titled solo album on a prominent indie imprint. Even though Bright Eyes, which was declared an actual band with a concrete line-up in 2007, was by and large acknowledged as Oberst’s dictatorship, and even though Saddle Creek would’ve been an ideal fit for this collection of roots-rock. Hell, had Bright Eyes never existed, the idea of Conor Oberst releasing a solo record in 2008 would still be outlandish, given that his first two solo LPs were released on cassette way back in the early 90s. So why now? It’s anyone’s guess; mine being that after the polished, orchestrated pop of Cassadagga, Oberst took a step back to deliberate his future. Moreover I’d wager his own guesswork opted against baring the Bright Eyes name to a ramshackle follow-up like this self-titled release. A wise move, not because Conor Oberst suffers from mediocre ideas or travels unflattering directions, but because this album proves that Oberst, as a songwriter, is versatile enough to exist beyond Bright Eyes’ fame.
A few spins of Conor Oberst subtly makes clear the strategy here: these aren’t Bright Eyes tunes, restless nor careful. Here, Oberst’s home is the road, humid and weathered, where much of this material rustles like weary drifters roaming Americana on petrol vapours. ‘Sausalito’ sets the stage, a two-note Johnny Cash bassline that’s as languid as Oberst’s end-verse backing vocals, that tells his tale of highway loves and overdue debts. It’s a difficult tempo to maintain, I’d imagine, when revving it up or slowing down would’ve made the song far less transient. But that’s the point here; as Oberst himself might say, it’s another travellin’ song, and the pace becomes perfect for easy Autumn drives. ‘NYC – Gone, Gone’ features a brief return of the DIY ethic that made songs like ‘Drunk Catholic’ so urgent while ‘Moab’ hitches a ride with Pavement-style chords to provide Oberst’s thesis, stating “there’s nothing that the road cannot heal”.
This recording feels increasingly marginalized from the Bright Eyes canon thanks to its variety, jumping from the garage-band shouts of ‘Souled Out!!’ to the humble folk of ‘Milk Thistle’. Most objectionable is ‘I Don’t Wanna Die (In the Hospital)’, a hokey, full-band interlude that is innocent enough but a giant spike in an otherwise calm sequencing. The willingness to defile potential graces of ones album for the sake of spontaneity is a hard-earned trick, and a checkmate that makes Conor Oberst surprisingly hard to pin down. The only time its disjointed scope is troubling is when you’ve just heard an album highlight (like the romantic ‘Lenders in the Temple’ or best-song-ever ‘Cape Canaveral’), something reminiscent of a Bright Eyes’ classic moment, which is then interrupted by a careless, bar-stomp. Oberst seems intent on dismantling any notion of a masterpiece, in the process marking a transitional gem in his catalog.
So his new approach – dropping band and label of yore – might well be Conor’s way of lowering expectations, and while this is too scattershot to be greater than the past several Bright Eyes albums, it warrants praise that hasn’t prejudged it as inferior. If Conor Oberst is to be the second coming of a songwriter who, at 28 years young, has already lived out a full career, this is a promising first taste.