Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst

Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst

This is not a Bright Eyes record. Don’t believe the critics who tell you it is. Because it isn’t, not even close. There are things very specific to Bright Eyes recordings, beginning of course with guru producer Mike Mogis. He’s not here this time around, and it shows. Other things missing: obscure opening track distortion, consistent thematic elements that tie together what appear at first to be disparate songs but end up relying on each other completely to make the album work, literary devices fit for graduate students to study for their dissertations, Saddle-Creek — oh, and politics. Up equals down.

The fact that Oberst released this record (his first solo effort since the cassette tape days of 1993 debut album Water) under his own name rather than the more famous moniker he’s been known for since 1998 is both telling and important. Telling in that it gives hint to the idea that he is trying to distance himself from the brand that Bright Eyes has become. And make no mistake about it; “Bright Eyes” is a brand. It’s taken on a life I think Oberst never dreamed it would — it’s become an object, a commodified piece of property chewed up and sometimes spit out by writers, musicians, and fans who take for granted Oberst’s own subject-hood in the extraordinarily co-opted myth perpetuated by all of them.

Important in that Conor Oberst should not be compared to a Bright Eyes record. It would be unfair to even try. If, say, you put this album next to Fevers and Mirrors (which is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of recorded music to come along in the last fifty years or so), it would be impossibly difficult to make sense of the fact that they were written by the same artist. Apple, meet orange, and so on. What we have here is a beginning of something else.

Oberst seems to be reveling in his own meaninglessness these days. For so long (going on fifteen years), critics have pegged him as the “next Dylan” (Jakob can’t catch a break, man), some kind of musical demigod, or the provocateur of is-it-or-is-it-not protest music. Some writers (the type with the biggest balls, I assume) have even suggested that he’s an emo wunderkind here to sing the soundtrack of universal teenage angst or some such nonsense.

Oberst is nothing if not divisive, and it seems more and more that if you have an opinion of Bright Eyes at all, you’re either in the camp equipped with unconditional worship or the camp of transcendental detestation. People have, fairly or unfairly, made Oberst into something he clearly wants no part of, ascribing weight and meaning to him without bothering to ask him if he means anything at all. Surprise — he doesn’t.

Conor Oberst (available on Merge Records) was recorded over the course of a month in Tepoztlan, Mexico, in a makeshift studio in the middle of some mountains. It is a minimalist piece of folk-country strumming, produced by Oberst alongside longtime Saddle Creekers Andy LeMaster, Nate Walcott, and Jason Boesel (among others), who call themselves The Mystic Valley Band. On it are songs so complex in their simplicity that it’s immediately apparent that it could have been written by no one other than Conor Oberst. On “Lenders in the Temple,” the most beautifully composed song on an album full of them, Oberst sings, “Erase yourself and you’ll be free” — further evidence that that is that (that being Bright Eyes) and this is this (this being Conor Oberst).

And it’s not only name that Oberst is trying to escape; he seems to want no part of place, either. In recent interviews, he’s said that he never feels comfortable staying put for more than a few months, and that sentiment is heard throughout Conor. In “Sausalito,” Oberst sings in all his Holden Caulfield-ian glory, “We should move to Sausalito / living’s easy on a houseboat / let the ocean rock us back and forth to sleep.” And on the jaunty, jingle-jangle (yep, it’s a jingle — I dread seeing this song live amidst 2,000 jumping thirteen-year-old girls; it’s gonna be completely exhausting) “NYC-Gone, Gone,” Oberst seems to be all too happy to leave the place that can numb the mind of the best of them, singing, “Gone, gone from New York City / where you going to go with a head that empty? / Gone, gone from New York City / where you going to go with a heart that gone? / Down, down to Mexico City / got myself a girl, she know how to treat me.”

No word yet on what this girl from Mexico City did to Oberst, but on the very next song, (“Moab”), Oberst sings, “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal” — so she’s bound to have done something. The thing is, though, regardless of what (almost every single solitary) critic has said about this record, it’s not solely about travel. There’s nothing necessarily connective about these songs, no theme that makes you think that hey, this song relates to this song and this song relates to this song.

There are serious moments on the record, as on “Souled Out!!!”, where Oberst sings about buying one’s way into heaven (word up, Joel Osteen), and more serious moments — see “Danny Callahan,” one of the saddest songs Oberst has ever written, about a young boy who dies from cancer and the forgotten humanity associated with the questions that science never wants to answer. But there are also lighthearted moments here…about the joys(?) of suicide (“I Don’t Want to Die in a Hospital”).

Side note: hey, Rolling Stone, this song is so not about Oberst’s grandfather. Read a liner note every once in a while, will ya?

And there are even lighter moments; an entire song, “Valle Mistico,” with nothing but a conch shell being played by someone, I think, named Ruben.

Conor Oberst is an incredibly interesting record, and if I hadn’t said earlier that I wouldn’t compare it to other Bright Eyes’ offerings, I would probably rate it like number three out of anything Conor’s ever done. I’m not going to rate it, though, because who are we without our integrity? It’s an amazing piece of musical and lyrical evolution from an artist who is constantly evolving. Oberst matters to music, and this record shows precisely why. Is it time for top ten lists yet?

(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514; http://www.mergerecords.com/; Conor Oberst -- http://www.conoroberst.com/)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Thursday, August 14th, 2008. Filed under Reviews.

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