His prolific output, lyrical verbosity and skinny, dishevelled good looks have helped establish him as the poster boy of American indie rock, but also attracted the ire of many who, quite frankly, want to knock his lights out. Active as a recording artist since his early teens, the general consensus as Oberst nears his 30s is that, far from being the new Bob Dylan, he has yet to produce his defining statement.
For the follow-up to 2007’s Bright Eyes album Cassadaga, Oberst has opted to use his birth name for the first time since the 1996 cassette The Soundtrack To My Movie. The fact that he has also titled his new album Conor Oberst indicates a grand coming-of-age statement. In actual fact, this low-key recording is Oberst’s most charming and down-to-earth release to date, eschewing the political leanings of the I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning/Digital Ash In A Digital Urn double whammy and the lush production values of Cassadaga.
Oberst makes his first appearance on one of his album sleeves, pictured asleep in a hammock while in the background a scantily clad woman sits in front of a roaring fire. The image reflects the laidback recording sessions that gave birth to the album. The temporary absence of multi-instrumentalist and Bright Eyes mainstay Mike Mogis prompted Oberst to travel to Tepoztl�n, Mexico to record with a raggle taggle group of musicians dubbed the Mystic Valley Band, featuring Jason Boessel (drums/vocals), Macey Taylor (bass), Nik Freitas (guitar) and Taylor Hollingsworth (guitar), alongside Bright Eyes regular Nate Walcott (keyboards).
One of the more obvious crossovers from Cassadaga is Oberst’s fascination with travelling. The boy from Middle America (Omaha, Nebraska, to be precise) moves from Florida (Cape Canaveral) to California (Sausalito) on the opening two tracks, before passing through New York City (NYC – Gone, Gone) and Utah (Moab) on his way to Mexico (Valle Maestico (Ruben’s Song)). The wanderlust spirit is reflected in the melodic country rock that is the album’s defining sound, with the Mystic Valley Band providing relaxed musical backing. The ghost of Hank Williams haunts the stomping I Don’t Want To Die (In The Hospital) and the brief NYC – Gone, Gone, while the easy-going Americana of Cape Canaveral would not be out of place on a Ryan Adams album.
The latter track opens the album with a typical Oberst torrent of words, but the hints of a personal crisis (“Apart, I just came apart”) are tempered throughout the following eleven tracks by frequent references to finding salvation by getting out of town and starting anew. “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal,” Oberst repeats throughout Moab, although on the closing Milk Thistle his attempt to pass as a 21st century Robert Johnson rings hollow (“I keep death at my heels like a basset hound”).
So, the jury is still out on Conor Oberst. His loyal fans will be slightly puzzled by the easy going roll of the music but rewarded by several choice lyrical nuggets, while his critics will point out that Dylan had already released Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde before recording John Wesley Harding. Yet again, Oberst’s next move is eagerly awaited.