2008 / Music

Review: Conor Oberst’s Solo Turn Marks Country-Rock Emergence

Bright Eyes Singer-Songwriter Steps Out With New Disc

For most of his creative life, Conor Oberst has played the helpless victim of his uncensored musical imagination.

Photo: Merge Records

Photo: Merge Records

As the fountainhead for Nebraska-based, indie-folk project Bright Eyes, Oberst has allowed his emotions to rule his songwriting and performances. Each song’s sole purpose was as a venue for Oberst to surrender himself to be the unflinching, unconscious vehicle for all of his emo yearnings. He was tightly wound and always intense. His highly personal verses were rambling and defiantly colored outside the lines. The tunes leapt forward like a spring uncoiled. As he sang each cluttered line, his heart was inevitably in his throat. This unfiltered passion and his smart lyrical flourishes earned him an impressive list of admirers, but didn’t motivate him to graduate to the next level as a songwriter.

The most invaluable trait of a great songwriter — or any artist, actually — is two interrelated abilities. The first is that of creator; someone dreams up an idea or forges a concept from the mundane raw materials around them. The second is that of editor. It’s the ability to assess the core concept separate from personal indulgences and to refine it as to best communicate the message to listeners’ ears. Despite more than a half-dozen albums to his name and media praise as the songwriting equivalent of Bobby Fischer, Oberst has yet to consistently master these skills. Until now, that is.

Oberst’s self-titled solo album marks an important breakthrough in his development. Beyond his Ricky Nelson country-rock posing, Oberst has drafted his best slate of songs in years. Loose, light and chorus-filled, the new tracks are perhaps a songwriting exercise gone wonderfully right.

To fulfill his Gram Parsons dream, he has ditched his Bright Eyes collaborators for a new, five-member, country-oriented outfit dubbed the Mystic Valley Band. An even greater transition for this the new album is how Oberst has finally cast off the lyrical motormouth persona that grew tiresome on many of his old material. Often times, he sang like he was going to be shuffled away from the mic before he fully spilled his guts. “My mind races with all my longings but can’t keep up with what I got,” Oberst aptly confessed on one song.

While comparisons to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are loathsomely overdone, it would be fair to spot a parallel between the burgeoning creative maturity that Oberst shows on the new album and that of his “Vote For Change” tour mate in the early to mid-’70s. Like Oberst, the Boss’ early albums were overflowing with vivid imagery babbled over tunes that nearly always threatened to run away from the singing. Although the end results were sometimes glorious, both new Dylans too often digressed. Their performances shared a sense that years of pent-up thoughts and emotions had to spew over every single note. Exorcising a feeling was more important than song structure. With “Born To Run,” however, Springsteen shifted that overwrought energy into the hooks and arrangements with spectacular effect.

On “Conor Oberst,” the 28-year-old Cornhusker doesn’t climb to such heights as “Born To Run,” but he now sounds more settled, more polished and less in need of raw venting. He isn’t yet the pop craftsman that Ryan Adams can occasionally be, but he’s making sublime, genre-obeying ditties now instead of just scatterbrained folk jams for a sprawling poet.

Cynics might take issue with this record’s absence of any first-person confessing and deem this album to be less serious or emotionally available than the old Bright Eyes discs. However, what listeners are really hearing is a songwriter who has refocused his talents on the medium as well as the message. This idea, as well as his embrace of a commercial country sound, isn’t completely out of left field either. Oberst has been flirting with his country influences for years. The new album’s pastoral feel sets it as a sequel to 2004’s “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” but with some trace backs to 2007’s “Cassadaga.” These new tracks, if not completely original in style, demonstrate the patience and dedication that he’s learned since then, and the songs grow in complexity and depth with repeat listens.

The chords and rhythm of album opener “Cape Canaveral” leave the corral like Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel,” but the easy-going strum and the reverb-washed vocals eventually ease into a more Paul Simon direction. Oberst starts with a sing-song vocal cadence that also fades as he fills out more verses with his trademark, symbolistic descriptive powers. The complimentary acoustic guitar patterns form an exquisite melody that suggest an atmosphere of nighttime recollections as they lovingly couch his catch-phrase references that breeze by.

Although many of the new cuts have obvious antecedents in familiar country and folk forms, it doesn’t take away from the joy inherent in these energetic efforts. “Sausalito” has a spry, Bakersfield rhythm that substitutes a tone-rich, rock guitar licks for any steel guitar swipes. The rockabilly fury of “I Don’t Want To Die (In The Hospital)” allows Oberst to play a juiced-up combination of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis while guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth pretends to be a roots-shredding Carl Perkins. “NYC — Gone, Gone” is a brilliant Irish rebel song lead with an electric guitar instead of fiddle that should draw everyone to chant along and whose only crime is its brief running time. The odd duck is “Danny Callahan,” which is a nearly perfect Elliott Smith piano romp. It’s a pop smackdown that excellently recreates both Smith’s Beatles fixation and the late singer-songwriter’s constant sense of lovelorn-edness.

Like many of the other tracks on “Conor Oberst,” “Get-Well-Cards” appears to initially spring from a name artist’s songbook (this time, Dylan’s.) He takes the chord progression from Bob’s “Oh Sister” and combines it with alliterative, “Blonde On Blonde”-era vocal phrasing to exciting levels. However, it’s Hollingsworth who helps distinguish this song and himself. His acoustic guitar soloing trails and teases out around Oberst’s huge chords and pulls the melody into being more than just a very good Dylan hackjob. Hollingsworth comes to the rescue once again on “Souled Out!!!” His searing electric leadwork makes this slab of power pop more daring and more dangerous and eggs Oberst on to holler like he’s losing it during the song’s outro.

Oberst excels when playing musical dress-up on the new record, but only truly shines on his own when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar. The intricate fingerpicking of “Lenders In The Temple” is proof of his musicianship and gift for conjuring melodies from a constellation of plucked notes. His lyrics are restrained and convoluted although his sense of angst and dejection burns clearly through his voice.

Closing track “Milk Thistle” is more accepting in tone and absent any of the tumult in all his other songs. Relying again on just his guitar and gentle voice, Oberst leads listeners through the narrator’s parable as calmly as if he’s asking for mercy he knows he won’t get. His guitar strikes at the most dire points of his tale and reiterates flickering-out desperation buried in his meaning. Had this been any old Bright Eyes record, both songs would have likely spilled over with super-clever zingers and Dennis Miller footnotes, but wouldn’t have soared as well musically. These testify to Oberst’s new credo: songs come first, purging comes later.

While it would be easy to credit Oberst’s creative about-face to his new bandmates or the album’s stylistic masquerade party, the unifying factor is the sense of deliberation inherent in each of these tracks. These aren’t the kind of songs culled from Oberst’s therapy sessions. And they aren’t the type to be scrawled over multiple napkins. These were gems labored over time and again after they first sprang forth from his head. It’s a tell-tale sign of maturity.

Creating songs like this was a challenge that Oberst knew he had been ducking for years. “I could have been a famous singer/If I had someone else’s voice/But failures always sounded better/Let’s (expletive) it up, boys,” he sang on one cut off “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.” Sticking with just the original idea and letting every thought muck up a song isn’t something Oberst should fall back into.

“Conor Oberst” is the album the singer needed to make at this point and at this age. We can now hear how the boy genius has finally grown up.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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