Music Reviews

Bright Eyes Cassadaga

(Saddle Creek) Rating - 7/10

Oh Conor, you were so close. What happened? You were so close to making the perfect record, or at least the best album you were capable of, which is pretty damned good. Who knows, maybe you made your best album already with last year's excellent "I'm Wide Awake it's Morning". I still had reason to hope. You were on an upward trajectory with the quality of your material and you had taken the key step of editing yourself down to a relatively tight 45 minutes on Wide Awake. Oh, if only Lifted had been 45 minutes! I choose to willfully ignore the "Digital" album you released concurrent with Wide Awake only because it belies my premise that your editing skills were improving. Now, with Cassadaga, you're back up to an hour, and we feel every one of those 15-20 extra minutes.

Things start off pretty well, as Oberst hones his emo/country chops with 6 strong songs in a row, after the obligatory noise/spoken word/pseudo-song ramble that has become his calling card for some reason that still eludes me. "Clairaudients (Kill or be Killed)", the song portion, is actually not bad. But really, what is all this nonsense about clairvoyants in Cassadaga, Florida anyway? I heard Oberst on NPR discussing his fascination with the town and its paranormal residents at length and I still don't get it. Nevermind. This sort of indulgence comes with the territory as we all know when we shell out our $9.99 for a Bright Eyes product. Soon enough we are into the heart of the disc, which is front loaded to a noticeable degree. "Four Winds" is the natural single, full of Oberst's grand poetic gestures, biblical in this case, that attempt to transform the ordinary into the mythic. This hardly ever works and frequently sounds forced. I prefer the plainspoken outrage he displayed on "Road to Joy", where he addressed topics that suited his inherent intensity. Still, musically he has rarely faltered in recent years and the early songs are uniformly strong. One standout is "Soul Singer in a Session Band", with a great, loping backup vocal from M. Ward, and a rousing refrain. On "Make a Plan to Love Me", Oberst transports us to another time with a gentle doo-wop ballad. He astutely avoids sentimentality and gets the mood just right, even on the dramatic chorus, where a younger Conor would have pulled out the throat shredding stops.

As for the rest, "Coat Check Dream Song" has a nice, yes dream-like, quality to it, but after "Classic Cars", the disc drops off precipitously. I'd like to say there is an excellent shorter album's worth of material here, but I'm not sure that's true. I would pair it down to 8 songs and 36 minutes, including the noise, and now we are approaching ep territory. So essentially we are left with a pretty decent album with a lot of filler, and unfortunately the filler is not as interesting as it was on "Lifted". Someone in this band needs to speak up as an editor. Not everything Oberst brings into the studio needs to be released and one of his good buddies should tell him so.