In a recent interview, Bright Eyes‘ Conor Oberst remarked that he has “always had a bad habit of defaming whatever people find sacred, whenever I’m in a certain mood”. He was referring to his infamous Glastonbury set of 2005 when he said: “John Peel was a cokehead; that’s why I like him, we have a lot in common.”
Oberst’s enfant terrible tendencies have long threatened to cast him as an artist determined merely to offend and upset, without any particular message behind him. Even his finest anti-Bush moment, When The President Talks To God, was susceptible to accusations of lacking sincerity in the light of the above remark.
The boyish streak that merely wants to shock seems to have left him on Cassadaga. As always, the apocalypse looms large due to the manias of our leaders, but Oberst is more articulate and impassioned than perhaps ever before. The 27-year-old is a rebel with a cause after all.
Forever aligned with Bob Dylan, that is not something that will let up for Oberst on Bright Eyes’ seventh album. Latest single Four Winds succeeds in being both Blowin’ In The Wind and Just Like A Woman at the same time, while When The Brakeman Turns My Way is eerily similar to When The Deal Goes Down, one of the centrepieces to Dylan’s Modern Times, released only last year. Is Oberst so gnarled, so young, that he is comparable to a world-weary songwriter in his sixties?
Only sometimes. Fun is not something one equates with Bright Eyes records, but at least the premise behind Cassadaga is a positive one. Cassadaga is a spiritualist community in Florida it seems Oberst was enamoured with, and while themes of political gloom and personal angst remain an integral part of Oberst’s songwriting arsenal, faith in mysticism and ‘spiritual nourishment’ may provide him, and us, respite.
Then again, as always, he pokes fun at anything that offers answers. On Soul Singer In A Session Band he sings: “I had a lengthy discussion about the power of myth/ With a post-modern author who didn’t exist/In this fictitious world our reality twists/I was a hopeless Romantic, now I’m just turning tricks.”
Oberst explores the full gamut of his influences, as is par for the course. The minimalist alt-country of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake Its Morning is fleshed out with mandolins, fiddles, pianos, clarinet even, and a lush rhythm section that energises his compositions. As always, mainstays of the band Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott are on hand to shape and execute Oberst’s vision. Others involved on Cassadaga include Gillian Welch, M Ward, Rachel Yamagata and Maria Taylor.
However, Make A Plan To Love Me sounds unlike any other Bright Eyes track. With horns and orchestration that evoke Van Morrison and a chorus and backing vocals that remind one of John Lennon‘s mid-’70s albums, here is a moment of gentility amid the chaos.
Cassadaga is everything his fans would expect from him – mournful, moody and full of lovely melodies. Arguably his most earnest collection, it all feels a bit like Oberst’s endgame with the world. Or perhaps, more accurately, I mean the endgame with his own youth. The boy is dead, long live the man. Conor Oberst – rebel with a cause after all.