REVIEW: Bright Eyes, Cassadaga, Saddle Creek

Posted April 10th, 2007 by eric

For years, the self-involved diarrhea-diary-entry-style lyrics of Bright Eyes sent me over the edge, not to mention the fact that Conor Oberst’s affected trembling in and out of key made my skin crawl. I’m not sure of the moment I softened on the subject of Bright Eyes, but I think it was around the time of Lifted or The story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground in 2003 that I started to look beyond the pretentious drama.

I must not have hated Oberst’s music as much as I thought I did because I kept up with Bright Eyes’ every release out of what I thought was just morbid curiosity. It turns out that I had a love/hate relationship with him. I still find many of Oberst’s vocal tics annoying, but I genuinely respect his lyrical ability. And since most bands, especially of the emo-bedwetting ilk, can’t write their way out of a wet paper sack, I found myself admiring Oberst’s uncanny way with words more and more.

As his star has risen over the past few years, many of the emotionally stunted sycophants that cherished Oberst’s every quiver have abandoned ship because they realized he’s not writing special, super-secret diary entries specifically for them anymore. He never was to begin with, but try reasoning with an emo kid. Oberst’s pen may be pointing away from himself with greater frequency, and unlike legions of his die-hard fans, I actually prefer it that way.

Cassadaga is noticeably Oberst’s most accomplished work on every level. It’s slickly produced but not with the radio-friendly tricked-out sheen you’ll find on any given meat-rock station. Instead, Oberst has found comfort in the easy going alt/country acoustic domain of his masterful I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, and he stays there for Cassadaga, adding larger, fuller arrangements and a celebratory flourish of strings and pedal steel guitar. Oberst’s mind is married to a generic political malaise that would cause an ordinary lyricist to flounder, but Oberst’s phrasing and wordplay is still top notch, despite the tricky subject-matter.

Lyrics usually kill bands for me, which I suppose is why I can’t seem to shake Bright Eyes. Even when he was writing claustrophobic vignettes about his hopes and fears (Fevers and Mirrors), Oberst knew how to turn a phrase and avoid being a typical high school journal keeper with nothing interesting to say. Now that he has expanded his context beyond what he feels, beyond the politics of personal discovery, his appeal has only grown. Granted, mining the politics of, well, politics, is nothing new, and even wholly ill-advised, Oberst plunges head first into his attacks with skill and aplomb, and even a bit of drama.

Oberst has succumbed to an inevitable musical maturation, which is anathema to his original teenage fanbase, but even those kids will look back on that time of their lives as an embarrassment the same way Oberst probably does.

Tags: album-review