One of the biggest musical surprises of the summer for me is just how much I’m enjoying the Conor Oberst solo album. I don’t know why I’m particularly surprised by this, I mean I’ve enjoyed every Bright Eyes album to varying degrees, especially I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. But last year’s Cassadaga was kind of an uneven mess, and it’s something I haven’t gone back to in over a year, so I thought my interest in his music was waning. Conor Oberst the album though reestablishes him as one of the better working folk-rock songwriters.
As on Cassadaga, the major theme of Conor Oberst seems to be travel, restlessness, and finding your place in the world. For an artist who has always been thought of as strongly connected to his hometown, Omaha, and who has up until this point stayed loyal to a relatively small hometown label, Saddle Creek, it may be noteworthy that this release is coming from Merge Records - perhaps signifying a major career shift. Multiple songs reference the road as a place of escape - “there’s nothing that the road cannot heel” he sings on “Moab” - and the album was recorded without his usual Bright Eyes cohorts (most notably absent is longtime collaborator Mike Mogis) in Tepoztlán, Morelos, México.
The songs themselves are diverse enough to keep interest, yet flow smoothly from start to finish. Most avoid being overly precious and over-emoting, two things that has plagued Oberst from the start, and rather play to his many strengths - there’s humor, playfulness, reflection, and some poignant character sketches. Most of the songs find characters who are at the end of their ropes, looking for escape and new starts - something that Oberst approaches with a plenty of sympathy. Musically, the change in setting hasn’t really changed the overall approach, as most of the songs adhere to familiarity - simple folk rock, mid-tempo barroom rockers, or straight acoustic ballads prevail, with production that doesn‘t attempt to strip the songs of their loose, off-the-cuff charm.
“Cape Canaveral” and “Milk Thistle” open and close the album with stripped down arrangements and vintage Bright Eyes melodies. In fact, the opening run of songs, up until “Danny Callahan”, a song that uses imagery of a sick child to suggest there’s no order in the world and we should never take life for granted, are all particularly strong. The middle of the album tends to drag somewhat but Conor Oberst comes back to end with some of its better moments. “Moab” and “Souled Out!!!” are slick rockers that would each make good singles and “Milk Thistle” is one of the year’s most beautiful songs. Overall, Conor Oberst isn’t going to sound revelatory or amaze you with new tricks - it’s simply a very solid singer-songwriter album from an artist just restless enough to keep things interesting.
MP3 :: Danny Callahan
(from Conor Oberst. Buy here)
And here’s that new video for “Souled Out!!!”