As the dog days of summer heat up, Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst is experiencing an understandable wanderlust on his most recent solo disc. He pairs up with the Mystic Valley Band (which includes Nate Walcott, one of three permanent members of Bright Eyes along with Oberst and Mike Mogis, absent for this album) and recruits longtime collaborator Andy LeMaster to engineer his first solo outing since 1996’s Kill The Monster Before It Eats Baby. Conor Oberst is a country-rock record focused on movement, on escaping, themes that fit nicely with Oberst’s searching, strained, oftentimes desperate vocals and the fact that he opted to record the album away from the US in the Mexican city of Tepoztlán.
This worldly restlessness first manifests itself on opener “Cape Canaveral.” Elegantly accompanied by light acoustic strums and muted percussion, this vivid recollection of the 1969 moon landing also highlights Oberst’s winsome, unusually relaxed vocals. And despite how crammed tight each line is with layer upon layer of imagery, Oberst’s lyrics still flow well and easily. “Lenders In The Temple” has a similar stripped-down feel, at least instrumentation-wise. But the lyrics, delivered in Oberst’s increasingly raw, impassioned vocals, are sharp, occasionally surreal, daggers, whether he’s skewering American materialism (“There's pink flamingos living in the mall”) or the collapse of something even bigger in lines like “There's money lenders inside the temple / That circus tiger's gonna break my heart / Something so wild turned into paper / If you loved me, then that's your fault.”
“Sausalito” and “Danny Callahan” find Obest and crew channeling a carefree, swinging folk-rock sound, fitting in some soulful harmonies, upping the drums, and reintroducing some electric soloing courtesy of Taylor Hollingsworth. But it’s “I Don’t Want To Die (In A Hospital)” where the album really hits its stride (though it does take some getting used to, as this track is definitely a departure from the rest of the material here). Launching straight off with Nate Walcott’s frenzied, honky-tonk piano riff, this is a bleakly hilarious tale of a bed-ridden narrator struggling to escape. The band is clearly enjoying itself, whether it’s seen in Oberst’s unhinged yelps or in the swaying guitar lines.
The second half of this disc has a looser, more carefree feel, epitomized by the chunky riffs of “Souled Out!!!” (the exclamation points alone give this raw, passionate burst away) and Oberst’s ode to the road, “Moab.” “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal,” he proclaims on the latter, which swerves straight into Oberst’s own take on “I Won’t Back Down” with his Petty-esque warbling and power strums, with some driving piano rhythms and Jason Boesel’s pounding drums to round things out.
There’s a couple tracks that end up getting lost in the shuffle, namely the fifty-second bugling of “Valle Mistico (Ruben’s Song)” and the forgettable stomp of “NYC- Gone, Gone." Meanwhile, “Eagle On A Pole” is lovely yet a little derivative of “Lenders In The Temple,” and it easily pales in comparison to the latter. Still, Oberst manages to close things off on a strong note with the stunning “Milk Thistle.” Oberst’s lilting vocals and spare touches of acoustic guitar and bass convene with quietly evocative, yearning lines like, “All the light and sound / This little world's too fragile now /And there's only one way out” and the recurring image of a newborn trapped at the bottom of a well.
Oberst has managed to seamlessly combine freefalling energy with a mood of poignant reflection on this disc. It’s a cohesive, inspired offering from a musician at once comfortable with his craft and increasingly innovative.
© 2008 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Merge Records, and is used for informational purposes only.