Conor Oberst debuted in 1994 at the age of 14 with his band Commander Venus, and over the years the accolades snowballed until a grandiose word like "genius" popped out. The poor kid never had a chance. Talented, yes. But pop music is already filled with pretentious "visionaries" who believe that their every move makes a sound. Tell a precocious teen he's "The New Dylan" and imagine what you're setting him (and yourself) up for. Oberst is now 27, and while the critical reception for his two simultaneously released 2005 albums - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn - was again mostly over-the-top, it hasn't yet translated into the kind of mass adulation that would give Deepak Chopra a run for his money.
Although Oberst has shied away from the hyperbolic praise, his songs have never been short on philosophical concepts, often sounding like the awkward musings of a freshman liberal-arts major who's been over-encouraged by his semiotics professor. And Cassadaga is packed with lyrics that will make you wince. ("All this automatic writing I have tried to understand / From a psychedelic angel who was tugging on my hand" is tucked inside a likeable country tune, "If the Brakeman Turns My Way.") Unfortunately, they're difficult to overlook since they're delivered in an earnest voice that wants you to notice them.
That's a shame, since sonically this is Bright Eyes' strongest album to date. Multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis and keyboardist Nate Walcott have been given full-time status, and they use it to flesh things out and orchestrate wildly. And as producer, Mogis assembles a lush, exciting sound that places violins, pedal steel, organ, Dobro, and a choir of voices into the mix with a great respect for sonic space. "Four Winds" shuffles with a seductive intonation, "Soul Singer in a Session Band" sways to a belligerent sea rhythm that's only sunk by its overwrought conceits ("I had a lengthy discussion about The Power of Myth / With a postmodern author who didn't exist"), and "Classic Cars" hits all the right C&W notes (with a faint Gillian Welch and David Rawlings guesting). There's also a dramatic, sweeping, Walcott-arranged string section for "No One Would Riot for Less."
But really, Bright Eyes is still a work in progress. Maybe by the age of 30, Conor Oberst will figure out how to say more with less - or better yet, let the music do the talking.
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