It’s easy to see why Conor Oberst has chosen to shed his nom de plume, Bright Eyes. There was a time around the release of the brilliant, defining I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning in 2004 when the talk of having found our generation’s answer to Bob Dylan was so loud that it threatened to drown out the music. Oberst had found himself being talked up as the political mouthpiece for a dissatisfied American youth, epitomised by the caustic When The President Talks To God.
So whilst the orchestral sweep of 2007’s Cassadaga threatened to spill over into MOR territory, it was the low-key self-titled debut released last year that really displayed his intentions. Simple, country-rock songs that focused more on the personal were the order of the day, with Oberst retreating slightly from the spotlight. Much like the equally prolific Ryan Adams, he’s now chosen to create a new band around him, one that he can share the load with and for the most part they do him proud.
Opener Slowly (oh so slowly) marries warm organ stabs, stop-start guitar and a familiarly complex lyric about the aging process that’s both funny and depressing (“Dementia, you better treat me good/ The human race is in a second childhood”). Big Black Nothing, as evidenced by the title, deals with a similar theme, but this time it’s guitarist Nik Freitas that takes lead vocals, his sweet, lilting voice a nice counterpoint to Oberst’s sometimes histrionic howl.
This democratic excursion isn’t a one off either, with Freitas also providing the piano heavy, Wilco-esque Bloodline and drummer Jason Boesel taking lead vocals on Difference Is Time and Eagle On A Pole. The latter shares the same name with a track on the first Oberst album, but Boesel’s version is prosaic compared to Oberst’s sprawling, emotional attempt.
The delegation on Outer South isn’t a case of lack of confidence on Oberst’s part, far from it. He provides numerous highlights, including the rollicking Nikorette, which may be another typically intricate story of neighbours, friends, small suburbs and the ‘big picture’ but is done with such gusto that it’s easy to be swept along. It’s followed by the lovely White Shoes, which pits Oberst’s crudely plucked guitar with a fragile, echo-laden vocal. He also re-enters the political sphere, albeit briefly, with Roosevelt Room, which sees the return of that mannered vocal spitting lyrics about the Roman Empire and an American revolution. It’s also the album’s sole rocker, clattering drums bouncing off furious organ runs and slicing guitar.
As with most Oberst albums, be them solo or with Bright Eyes, there’s the tendency to over egg the pudding and Outer South is no exception. Clocking in at a staggeringly arduous seventy minutes, it could easily have done with some pruning. Songs like I Got The Reason #2 and To All The Lights In The Windows stretch out to the six-minute mark, testing the listener’s patience and diluting their effect. Minor criticisms aside, however, Outer South is an enjoyable, relaxed album that contains some of Oberst’s best work. It also shows him lifting some of that weight of his shoulders.