Just a year ago, Conor Oberst seemed to have run out of ideas.
Oberst was becoming increasingly difficult to accept as anything other than a one-trick pony -- or worse, a particularly stubborn donkey hell-bent on kicking at the same stall walls for the rest of his career. His quavering, pitch-resistant singing may have suited his overly earnest, angry-young-man lyrics and endeared him a to generation of alienated teens and dorm dwellers. But the whole thing -- as an uneven 2005 appearance in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts underlined -- was getting old, and quick.
"Cassadaga" finally delivers on the promise you'd feel during the first 15 minutes of a Bright Eyes concert or album, that hint at greatness that grew further away the longer Oberst stayed on the stage, or with each tune past the fifth on an album. Oberst has been easy to root for so far, because his generation has yet to produce a Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen -- or, frankly, even a Tom Petty, John Mellencamp or R.E.M. Oberst was supposed to be the guy, and joining up with both Springsteen and R.E.M. on the Vote for Change tour highlighted his potential. Here was rock's new great hope-in-waiting.
This was a wonderful thought, but the music didn't stand up to the scrutiny. Oberst sounded repetitive, out of tune, narcissistic.
He doesn't now. Finally, the painter has learned to employ more colors than black and gray. "Cassadaga" finds Oberst and compatriots Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott crafting a record that reaches for Wilco-esque grandeur and, though it doesn't really get there, ends up creating a compelling, warm space all its own. Part of the reason for this is Oberst's vast improvement in the area of melodic composition. So often in the past, the songs seemed like half-baked constructs whose only purpose was to support Oberst's meta-text lyrics, which tended toward the mopey-eyed intellectual and the self-consciously precious. Here, there are genuine melodies; some nicely turned chord changes; gorgeous orchestration; and a smart marriage of lyrical skeleton and harmonic flesh.
Right off the bat, we know we're in for something different, as "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" introduces swirling strings suggesting Edgard Varese on psychedelics. The strings couch the "new" Oberst's voice -- a warm, subtle thing, far from virtuosic, but more believable in its humble, low-key wardrobe than it ever was as a caterwauling cry of anguish. "Four Winds" follows and sounds like Neil Young covering a tune from John Mellencamp's "Lonesome Jubilee" album, as fiddles saw and Oberst drops an arena-friendly chorus that is one of his most fully actualized.
"Make a Plan to Love Me" sounds a bit like Mercury Rev, its unabashedly romantic string arrangement staying just far enough north of cheeseville, and the trippy, heavily reverbed backing vocals from Rachel Yamagata and Z Berg serving as billowing, cotton-filled clouds in Oberst's otherwise foreboding sky. This tune in particular represents a true breakthrough for Oberst, suggesting a quite real maturation of his still-boyish talents.
"Soul Singer in a Session Band" boasts some of the Celtic-tinged fury of Mike Scott and the Waterboys, and Oberst's terse enunciation and significant emotional investment help smooth over some of the potentially clunky lyrics that adorn the slightly dubious nature of the metaphor the lyric revolves around. Oberst is trying to make some universal statements here, but his stuff remains a bit too idiosyncratic to connect in a way that transcends the wholly abstract.
And that's OK, really. The listener can fill in the blanks in logic themselves, which is certainly part of Bright Eyes' appeal in the first place.
"Cassadaga" would be a fine album in anyone's canon, but for Oberst, it represents a near epiphany. He may well turn out to be his generation's leading singer-songwriter light.
Review: Three stars (out of four)