Album Review - Bright Eyes, "Cassadaga"

If the Four Winds EP reaffirmed anything about Bright Eyes it was that the strength of Conor Oberst and co. is firmly rooted in the reflective folk he has steadily improved over the past 4 or 5 years. An even split between folk and folk-rock, the EP’s 6 songs spoke volumes as to where his strengths lay. “Stray Dog Freedom” took a familiar Bright Eyes melodic progression and amped it up with electric guitar and a rock beat, coming off more as a clunky ode to 70’s rock than a daring attempt at breaking new ground for the band. On the other hand, “Tourist Trap” (yes, still the best of all the 2007 Bright Eyes’ songs) was another in a long line of terrific folk-infused tunes, meshing weepy acoustics with percussion that sounded like someone skipping in slow motion down a gravel road. The arrangement was spacious enough to allow Oberst’s vocals to be at the forefront, and displayed the full fruition of the maturity in Oberst’s writing and singing that was hinted at on 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.

Go back a few years to the last Bright Eyes studio albums for more proof. There’s a reason that the confessional folk of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning was a far superior album to the adult-alternative electronica of Digital Ash In The Digital Urn, and it’s only partially due to the fact that it features better written songs. More so, it’s because Oberst’s emotive singing and lyrics are more immediate and striking when presented with a backdrop that doesn’t allow them to be ignored or dismissed as an after-thought. A rarity both at his age, and in this age, his lyrics are the type that should not be overshadowed. They are certainly not perfect, often featuring somewhat embarrassing intimacies that don’t demand revelation, yet more often can be filled with the kind of imagery and metaphor that used to lead to “new-Dylan” monikers for every songwriter who aced 12th-grade English. I’m Wide Awake It's Morning was, and still is, Bright Eyes’ strongest release largely due to the submission to the idea that Oberst’s vocals would be more widely appealing if they allowed for more subtlety and nuance, and weren’t so often completely histrionic.

All this leads us to the 7th Bright Eyes studio album from Saddle Creek Records, the soon to be released Cassadaga. Oberst spent much of 2006 in the studio crafting the album, and the results display a more sonically diverse and polished record than any of his previous ones. Cassadaga’s songs are crammed with lush detail, featuring background singers, electric guitars, and string arrangements in addition to all the already familiar Bright Eyes sounds, resulting in an album that at times puts these flourishes ahead of all else. For the most part the album works because of these new details, and sometimes in spite of them, finding a balance in which Oberst and band fit together to produce a more mature, less overtly personal, record.

Surprisingly, and in contrast to the Four Winds EP, Cassadaga is most successful when it lets loose and gets rowdy. The song “Four Winds” sets the scene of the album, coming on with plenty of Biblical references and war-torn imagery, belied by the bounding country-rock of the music. The song directly mentions Cassadaga, a Florida town known as a haven for psychics, and the extended metaphor running through much of the album is revealed - trying to cope with the fact that we never know where the world will take us, and consequently have little control over our own destinies. “If The Brakeman Turns My Way” offers more in the way of undetermined travel: “I’m headed for New England, or the Paris of the South, I’m gonna find myself somewhere to level out”. “I Must Belong Somewhere” presents a series of seemingly unrelated images that all possess a sense of place (“just leave the restless ghost in his old hotel, leave the homeless man out in that cardboard cell, let the painted horse on the carousel remain”), with the singer struggling to figure out where his place is.

Much of the rest of the album continues this similar theme. At first it seems as though Oberst has abandoned detailing his own personal anguish in favor of something more worldly, but instead he is using the accounts of others, combined with his own reactions to them, to illustrate his own sense of estrangement and alienation. The words “Oh, I've made love, yeah, I've been fucked, so what? I'm a cartoon, you're a full moon, let's stay up” from “Hot Knives” are seemingly written from the song’s female protagonist point of view, but could easily double as Oberst’s own admission. And the projection of the “Soul Singer In A Session Band” as someone who is overlooked and forgotten is a none-too-subtle hiding place for an artist who may occasionally feel the same way.

All of the above songs work in their arrangements because the strength of what Oberst is saying comes through over the lavish production. Ironically, it’s the slower songs, usually a strength for Oberst, that suffer most from the new production techniques. “No One Would Riot For Less”, “Coat Check Dream Song”, and “Lime Tree” all fail to match their inventive arrangements with equally memorable lyrics or melodies. Opener “Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed)” begins with a female recorded voice, seemingly a psychic talking on the phone (which continues Bright Eye’s somewhat annoying habit of beginning his albums without actually beginning the song). The song uses noise effects, the same taped voice, and strings to present an experimental sound collage, one that should be more successful if the lyrics weren’t as clunky (“Corporate or Colonial/The Movement is unstoppable/Like the body of a centerfold, it spreads”). The album also suffers from a few songs that contain instantly familiar rhyme schemes for Bright Eyes - “Soul Singer In A Session Band” especially, and despite being good songs, seem too rote to really stand out.

Cassadaga is the sound of a more ambitious, outward looking Bright Eyes, one that is alive with new ideas and the means to present them, and, as usual, one that is most successful when not over-reaching. Unlike many of the characters that populate it, the album has a clear sense of place and purpose - it reflects an artist figuring out his niche in a messed-up world. Long since removed from the hyper-emotional bedroom folk of his early days, Conor Oberst is growing up with each new release, and Cassadaga presents an artist almost done with the transition to full-on adulthood. In 2007 he is less a prisoner to his few limitations, and he’s inching closer to the classic album that he has seemed destined for since 2002’s Lifted…. Cassadaga isn’t quite it, but gives enough reason to think that it isn’t too far away.
MP3 :: Four Winds
(from Cassadaga)

MP3 :: Tourist Trap
(from the Four Winds EP)

MP3 :: Susan Miller Rag
(Cassadaga outtake, available as a bonus track with preorders)

Visit Saddle Creek Records, and Bright Eyes website and myspace.

Purchase Cassadaga, and other Bright Eyes albums, from Amazon.

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