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"Victory is sweet, even deep in the cheap seats..."
on August 5, 2008
By this time, we should all know what to expect from Conor Oberst - be it from a solo recording or a Bright Eyes record. For all of his talent, his skill as a songwriter, the changes from album to album have continually been slight (with the glaring exception of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn which was released simultaneously with a more traditional record). On this, his first solo record since wrapping up puberty, Oberst is in fine form; never straying far from his roots or his fans' expectations, but keeping things interesting enough to warrant several repeat listens.
Album-opener, "Cape Canaveral," is the exact opposite of what we heard from Oberst's last outing, Cassadaga. It's minimalist approach to music is nothing like the grand productions of that record, and honestly, it's a bit refreshing to hear. The song's "choruses" are a bit reminiscent of "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," but when your catalogue of songs is as massive as Oberst's, a bit of overlapping is bound to occur. Conor sings of things he's learned in his life, saying, "You told me victory is sweet, even deep in the cheap seats," and the imagery that it projects is truly beautiful. "Sausalito" takes a different approach. The upbeat, country rocker is more reminiscent of Johnathan Rice (ugh) or even Joe Walsh. It's catchy lyrics and subtle harmonies give it a light, bouncy aesthetic that is often missing from Conor's work. Could it be that Oberst is actually having fun on this record?
That definitely seems to be the case. While most of his musical career has been weighed down by the heaviness of his lyrics or the subject of his songs, Conor Oberst is much lighter all around. This is never more apparent than on the album's centerpiece, "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)," a frantic, piano-led freak out that finds Oberst singing of his last moments, pleading, "I don't want to die in the hospital/ you gotta take me back outside/ help me get my boots back on!" He later explains, "They don't let you smoke and you can't get drunk/ all there is to watch are these soap operas," and I totally get it. "Get-Well-Cards" is more toned-down, but still rather light. Oberst sings, "I wanna be a bootlegger/ wanna mix you up something strange/ braid your hair like a sister/ maim you like a hurricane." Funny stuff, Conor. Funny stuff.
But even though it has its lighter moments, Conor Oberst still manages to meet the expectations of his fans who like their music a bit dark. On "Lenders in the Temple," Oberst sings of feelings of helplessness and despair, noting, "I'd give a fortune to your infomercial if somebody would just take my call," over nothing but a guitar. It's such a wonderful expression of loneliness and I've found it to be one of my favorite moments on the album. On the album's last track, "Milk Thistle" Conor subtly remarks, "If I go to heaven/I'll be bored as hell/Like a little baby/ at the bottom of a well," like it's not one of the better, more impressive lines on the entire record. Moments like these remind us why we listen to Oberst in the first place, why he is regarded by almost everybody as one of the most important songwriters of his generation, and make us thankful that the well that he pulls his songs out of is as deep as it is.
But as I said before, most of Conor Oberst is upbeat, or at the very least more light-hearted than anything the artist has created before. Though it is still rooted in the style of his previous records, it maintains a uniqueness and a freshness that won't wear thin for quite some time. To make the record, Oberst rounded up a few of his more musically-inclined friends (the Mystic Valley band, as they are now immortally known) last winter and headed to a small Mexican town where they stayed for five weeks, writing and recording the album. The cold winter months usually lend themselves to equally cold songs. But the change of climate must have done Oberst some good. Conor Oberst is a warm, inviting, and exciting album that does a wonderful job of setting itself apart from the artist's other musical endeavors. As such, it's one that any fan would be crazy not to add to their collection. And for newcomers, well, this may just be the best time to discover the genius of Conor Oberst. Buy it!
1. "Cape Canaveral"
3. "Lenders in the Temple"
4. "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)"
5. "Souled Out!!!"
8 out of 10 Stars