Oberst sees the world through new eyes

The maturing Nebraskan folker crafts a superb solo effort

by Jay Boller

“Conor Oberst” Artist: Conor Oberst Label: Merge Records Conor Oberst will never get a focused review. There’s too much weight to that name. Every critic is sure to contrast the material to Bright Eyes, and considering that Bright Eyes is such a liquid and long-running enterprise, the comparisons could go on for days. With Bright Eyes’ wide-ranging spectrum of sounds – from the electro-dreamscape that was “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” to the early near-sobbing of “Letting off the Happiness” – it’s too easy for critics and fans alike to measure each of the 12 tracks that comprise “Conor Oberst” against something previously recorded. As hard as it may be, the only fair way to consider “Conor Oberst” is to judge it based solely on its own merits, disregarding all things Bright Eyes.

One thing is clear: It’s a very strong record. Recorded in the Mexican town of Tepoztlán, Oberst recruited a new troupe of musicians dubbed “The Mystic Valley Band” to create what is an exceptionally well-rounded roots-rock record. Perhaps collaborating with new musicians, releasing on an unfamiliar label (Merge Records) and seeking the relative isolation of a small Mexican town was the perfect mixture for Oberst, because he’s never sounded more like himself.

The disc’s opener, “Cape Canaveral,” is an upbeat and plucky acoustic number that waxes nostalgic for mid-century America and feels as organic as the rest of the record. For a man who has endured a painful number of Bob Dylan comparisons, on “Get-Well-Cards” he’s not doing himself any favors. The storytelling format combined with almost to-a-tee Dylan-esque yelps seems an almost overt nod to the Hibbing legend. The album’s centerpiece, “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital),” could be its strongest. As Oberst grapples with his mortality, there’s a Cash-derived chugging bass line, wild keys and fast-tempo guitars. It’s a delightful romp benefiting from Oberst’s reliably sharp songwriting.

Lyrically, on the second half of the album – with “NYC – Gone, Gone,” “Moab” and “Souled Out!!!,” – there’s an evident yearning for release, a new life and departing from the past. Clearly those are recurring themes on “Conor Oberst,” and considering how nearly every review of the record tackles Bright Eyes as much as the new material, perhaps those themes are the purpose of the album as well. The experiences recorded in Tepoztlán could be a bit of liberation.

But at face value, it’s a collection of expertly penned, no-frills folk rock songs that thrive on lyrical artfulness and depth. That, and a brave attempt to toss the Bright Eyes baggage that still seems to dog them.