By Daniel Garrett
Bright Eyes, featuring Conor Oberst
with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott Cassadaga
Songs by Conor Oberst
Recorded and mixed by Mike Mogis
Saddle Creek, 2007
History hovers in “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed),” a song that draws parallels regarding the deployment of power in the past and the present, between the corporate and the colonial, the cultural and the political, the financial and the religious, the west and the east, with consciousness and faith and nature at play and at stake: “future markets, holy wars, been tried ten thousand times before.” Conor Oberst sings in a plaintive voice, both hesitant and direct (shy and honest), and it is a voice of singularity, somehow calm despite the singer’s anxiety; a voice of knowing, of warning. In “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed),” Mike Mogis plays glockenspiel and other instruments, Nate Walcott organ, M. Ward guitar, and Hassan Lemtouni’s voice is heard among the other musicians. History is just one of the things that informs the album. Ignorance is not assumed or acceptable in the songs of Conor Oberst. That is not merely a matter of political awareness but a practical recognition: the world does not make much sense, now, without acknowledging that “Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe—there are people always dying, trying, to keep them alive,” as states the song “Four Winds.” The song opens with string music—I think, with Mike Mogis’s mandolin and Anton Patzner’s violin. Oberst gives us details—details of events and environment, of “bodies decomposing in containers,” and “a mural of a Mexican girl”—and, thus, we see (hear) not only the harm done but that no one’s response can be pure or entirely safe (the mural is made with fifteen cans of spray paint, which no doubt will deface property and also affect the environment). Oberst’s singing has energy, though often a restrained energy, and his is possibly the most attractive whine in the music business, the voice of a troubled young man willing to share his worry, the kind of worry that would be dismissed as paranoia if it did not come with music or an organization’s endorsement. I think it’s brave of Oberst to state, “The Bible is blind, the Torah is deaf, the Qur’an is mute. If you burned them all together, you’d get close to the truth”; and it may be, also, the kind of accusation that only matters to fanatics—to self-conscious, and self-provoking, believers and disbelievers. Could study illuminate the conflicts? Can understanding change our responses? The narrator describes a visit to a town called Cassadaga “to commune with the dead,” a visit that itself might suggest a flight from reason as much as a recognition of mysterious spiritual forces.
“All your friends and sedatives mean well but make it worse,” states the singer in “If the Brakeman Turns My Way,” a line that seems to replace “relatives” with “sedatives,” something that seems witty in its substitution, when “every reassurance just magnifies the doubt.” The song, written by Conor Oberst with drummer Jason Boesel, has a country-music sound, that of a country ballad: and it’s a little odd to have an old-fashion sound signify contemporary urges but it is an acclaimed sound of authenticity, of sincerity (thereby, it is not only Conor Oberst’s taste but his artistic strategy). The song’s central reference—a brakemen—could refer to a deity, a figure of authority, of destiny. Bad times, bad thoughts—and “I never thought of running. My feet just led the way.” Drift and escape, disorder and speculation: and changes do not seem to lead to anything very different. Nature is dominate—and yet human personality persists (“I tried to pass for nothing, but my dreams gave me away”).
Conor Oberst presents to the listener adultery and paradox, with the unexpected shared understanding between wife and mistress, in “Hot Knives,” a song in which a woman thinks, “When I do wrong I am with god” and “when I feel lost, I am not at all.” It might be worth exploring the place of women in these songs—as mothers, wives, mistresses, and what else? Janet Weiss’s drum rhythm is sometimes varied in an interesting way—distinct, doubled. Oberst’s singing does not have a great tonal range, but his voice has character, so his limitations, for me, are charming rather than discouraging. In “Make a Plan to Love Me,” a man asks an ambitious, busy person to consider him, to “make a plan to love me sometime soon.” If the desired object is a woman, and that seems likely, then this portrait may be a new female archetype for the singer’s portfolio, although not new to us.
Text and interpretation, reality and illusion, and fame and obscurity, are all classic divisions; and they are named or alluded to in “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” a song with a rambling rhythm and droning voice. The dualities in the song may have been profound once, but now they seem too easy attempts at order and meaning. Situations are suggested—a music session, a private room. It is hard to know what is most important when so many different things are named without their connections—without cause and effect, without logic, without relationship—made clear. (The song does remind me of some of Bob Dylan’s work.) “I was a hopeless romantic, now I’m just turning tricks,” and “I have been coming and going since the day I was born” Oberst, as narrator, claims. “Classic Cars” is about a young man’s affair with a country music grand dame (he describes her as an arts patron, and she seems to know about the country music scene); and the young man comes to learn “The whole world, it loves you, if you are a chic chameleon” and “never trust a heart that is so bent it can’t break.” It is a song forming a coherent picture, a discernible logic. The woman in the song could be the same one in “Make a Plan to Love Me.” Again, the story-song seems Dylanesque. Gillian Welch’s voice adds support to Oberst’s singing.
Identity can be found or lost in social situations. “I have become the middleman. The gray areas are mine. The in-between, the absentee, is a beautiful disguise,” sings Oberst in the percussion-heavy “Middleman,” a song that might be about being a performer or any social animal living in “constant compromise.” Oberst’s voice—firm, slightly breathy—is appealing here, confiding and sure of its vulnerabilities. The song features David Moyer and Brian Walsh on bass clarinet. The music has a folk sound; and it could be American folk, East European folk, middle-eastern folk, as it has that kind of spare but uptempo rhythm.
“Cleanse Song” is about surviving national disaster and personal trauma, a song of renewal and travel, a song of the moment, and it reminds me of Simon and Garfunkel. (It’s odd that critics sometimes disparage the past and its music, but artists who are honest and intelligent do not: they respect and expect to be part of tradition.)
“Death may come invisible or in a holy wall of fire,” states the song “No One Would Riot for Less,” one of several allusions to the end of life, and the end of empire, on the album: death is a fact that is conjured, wrestled with, accepted.
In a cascade of imagery, the “Coat Check Dream Song” has some captivating lines, such as “I slept with that dealer all summer. The ecstasy is still in my spine.” The song, written by Conor Oberst with pianist Nate Walcott, has a melodious sound, with nice harmonies; and it is a very carefully presented song. “I Must Belong Somewhere,” a song of lists, is the kind of thing one would expect of a Bob Dylan admirer. It is a song of acceptance—of self, of place; and, then again, it is also a protest—against much. “When I hear beautiful music, it’s always from another time,” declares Oberst in the album’s last song, “Lime Tree.” That assertion can seem true, especially with inspirations such as Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, but I doubt it is true. The album Cassadaga by Bright Eyes, featuring Conor Oberst, is a good album, but not a great one, and it does not betray the moment in which we live. Conor Oberst has ideas, can identify interesting situations, and tell stories, but I would like a little more spontaneous energy and more musical invention. It is important to master the basics—they are the foundation of everything; and Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes have done that, and it will be interesting to hear what they do next. There is an instant when a musician’s work can seem to embody his time, the most important aspects of his culture’s current history, but if he does not change, does not grow in fresh ways, he begins to embody not the present but the past. Yet, the growth of an artist must be true to the mind and nature of the artist rather than a fulfillment of the wishes of audiences and critics; and, sometimes, the best artists give us desires and pleasures we did not anticipate.
Daniel Garrett, a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com. Daniel Garrett’s commentaries on Bloc Party, Randy Crawford, Neil Young, Patti Austin, Yoko Ono, U2, The Dears, Bright Eyes, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, and others have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Garrett has written about diverse subjects, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, NatCreole.com, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Author contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org