With an ever-growing fan-base of hip, anxious teens and a string of creatively successful albums culminating in 2007’s “Cassadaga”, Bright Eyes had a brighter future than any other Omaha-based indie band would dare to dream.
So naturally, Conor Oberst – the singer, the songwriter, the very soul of Bright Eyes – decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to head down to a mountainside in Mexico with a couple of buddies and record a solo album.
Given the fact that Conor is a rock star, it would be fairly safe to call this is an act of unbridled egotism and leave it at that.
But then there’s the album’s title: “Conor Oberst”. A little obvious, yes, but it’s also a hint that this album might be the definitive work for him as an artist and as a human being — his masterpiece.
I’ll save you the suspense: it isn’t. If Conor Oberst is the brilliant but troubled “voice of our generation” that so many make him out to be, this isn’t when he proves it. Neither is “Conor Oberst” much of a creative risk: it’s more or less the same thoughtful, progressive folk-rock that Bright Eyes have had most of their success with.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Album opener “Cape Canaveral” finds Conor’s trademark acoustic balladry at its best, while “Sausalito” picks up the pace with a bouncy beat and playful electric guitar licks.
Then, on “Get-Well-Cards,” Conor sounds more like Bob Dylan than Bob Dylan himself, justifying the comparisons that overzealous journalists have been tagging him with for years.
But the real standout is “Lenders in the Temple.” Boasting sparse, foreboding instrumentation and carefully wrought images (“pink flamingos living in the mall”), the song is a haunting portrait of modern corruption, loneliness and despair.
But those are just the first four tracks. From there, Conor finds somewhat more limited success with a patchwork of lush folk arrangements (“Moab”), bluesy honky-tonk (“I don’t want to die (in the hospital)”) and even punky ditties (“NYC – Gone, Gone”).
Through it all, “Conor Oberst” remains unified by themes of mortality and travel, and by its relaxed, if somewhat forced, low-fidelity aesthetic (Conor purportedly recorded one song while lying in a hammock).
Conor’s road-refined voice has matured finely from an unwieldy quaver without losing any of its emotive range. Furthermore, his always vivid, rarely transparent lyrics are finally straying from shameless confessions and left-wing bombast.
Heck, on a couple songs the notoriously depressed singer even sounds happy.
“Conor Oberst” is not the definitive masterwork that the title implies.
It’s just a candid snapshot of a smart, troubled Nebraskan boy growing up.
Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.