There are so many differentwords critics and fans use todescribe Conor Oberst:emotional, sensitive, cleverand genius are typical(along with “gorgeous,” a title many ofhis new female fans have given him,despite his new “I haven’t bathed in tendays” appearance). But that’s whatOberst and his band, Bright Eyes, seemto be about: change. It keeps the bandfresh, allures new fans and leaves its listenerscraving more.
For the past 15 years, Oberst hasbeen experimenting with differentbands and different sounds. With BrightEyes, a band that basically consists ofOberst and an ever-changing ensembleof musicians, the boy genius has proventhat he can dabble in any sub-genre ofindie rock and still woo the critics.Whether it was the rootsy I’m WideAwake, It’s Morning, or the album’selectronic counterpart, Digital Ash in aDigital Urn, Oberst has found successwith whatever he does. On the band’slatest release, Cassadaga, Oberst takesthe sound from one of his older records,Fevers and Mirrors, and adds quite thecreative twist to it.
Named after a community inFlorida that is home to psychics, mediumsand fortune tellers, Cassadagaopens appropriately with a psychictelling Oberst that “Cassadaga mightjust be a premonition of a place you’regoing to visit.”
Just as he seems unsure on all ofhis previous records, this record showsOberst as even more unsure and vulnerablethan ever. He says that he seeshimself in a place where “everythingmust belong somewhere” and “deathmay come invisible.”
With lyrics like these, it is easy tosee why many (namely those who arenot familiar with the band) slap the”emo” label on Oberst. The insecure,vulnerable, boyish musician’s voice isso shaky that when he sings, it soundsas if he is sitting outside in sopping wetclothes in the dead of winter. However,delving deeper into the album and takinga closer look at what Cassadaga isreally about shows that Oberst is simplyquestioning, well… everything.
The album is also somewhat spiritualin the sense that, along withaddressing death, Oberst also addressesthe existence of God, talking abouta place where God is both an all-powerful”Brakeman” and a myth. Early inthe album, Oberst speaks of “going toCassadaga to commune with thedead.” However, the record takes adifferent path; love, loneliness and justwanting to belong somewhere arerecurring themes.
The beautiful thing is that Oberst,unlike a lot of bands today, does notsound like a grown man with the heart ofa whiny, teenage boy. Oberst has alwaysbeen about the words; his lyrics aredeep, dark, and beautiful.
Cassadaga is by far the mostdeveloped album by Bright Eyes, andwhile many hardcore indie-rock fanshave accused Oberst of becoming asellout due to his contacts with majorlabels, who can really blame the guyfor wanting to make the best musiche can?
Whether his home is NebraskabasedSaddle Creek Records or a majorlabel in Los Angeles or New York,Oberst will always have something tosay. The only real difference is that hismessage will come across to many more people.