Return of the space cowboy

Conor Oberst combines country and ambience on the latest Bright Eyes’ album ‘Cassadaga’

Matt Graham

Scene: A dorm room. A BLUE-haired freshman sits listening to the countrified emo blaring from his computer speakers. Enter an upperclassman, his tight-fitting RED T-Shirt emblazoned with a witty saying next to an outline picture of one of the contiguous 48 states.

Bright Eyes

TITLE: “Cassadaga”
LABEL: Saddle Creek

RED: What are you listening to so damn loud?

BLUE: It’s the new Bright Eyes album, “Cassadaga.”

RED: Bright Eyes? This sounds more like country.

BLUE: Yeah, Conor Oberst is taking the band’s sound in a new direction. He’s 27 now, y’know, the same age Dylan was when he made “Nashville Skyline.”

RED: Don’t talk to me about Oberst being this era’s-

BLUE: Dude! He totally is. Just listen to this album. It’s all about finding something true and pure and spiritual and lasting in our postmodern-

RED: Here we go againÖ

BLUE: Just listen to the first track.

RED: I can’t quite make out what’s being said with all that background noise, it sounds like the string section from “Sgt. Pepper” tuning up. Is that a conversation with a phone psychic I hear?

BLUE: It’s, like, a metaphor for the album. He can’t find any truth in any of the old religions, so he’s searching everywhere he can. And see how she’s talking about energy currents in different places throughout the country? That’s totally, like, about Conor’s life as a touring musician. But see, the sound effects fade and it goes into a folksy acoustic chord progression, so he’s really like this traditionalist who’s reinventing the traditions.

RED: Yeah, that’s kinda cool. Still, this kinda spaced-out, looking-for-meaning-in-modern-America, Pink-Floyd-meets-country-western sound is familiar from somewhereÖ

BLUE: But this doesn’t sound anything like any of the other Bright Eyes albums.

RED: Yeah, Conor’s voice does sound fuller.

BLUE: He’s still got his warble, but it’s deeper.

RED: And actually on key Ö Wait, did he just say “I had a lengthy discussion about the power of myth with a postmodern author who didn’t exist?”

BLUE: Yeah, “Soul Singer in a Session Band” is like this whole play on Derrida and deconstruction, and how it tries to reduce authors, y’know, to conglomerations of social forces. But see, Conor is an author, and he knows he exists!

RED: Don’t gimme your froshy philosophical interpretations. Besides, somebody certain of his own existence wouldn’t feel the need to try so hard to be clever.

BLUE: Have you seen the shirt you’re wearing?

RED: Whatever. The song does have a kind of nice, disguised Irish folk ballad melody, but done with pedal steel Ö wait, what’s this next track called? I like it, sort of an Arabian percussion and string sound.

BLUE: That’s “Middleman,” my favorite track. And it’s so deep lyrically, “I have become the middleman, the gray areas are mine / the in-between the absentee is a beautiful disguise,” or “The dead can hide beneath the ground and the birds can always fly / but the rest of us do what we must in constant compromise.” What’s right and wrong? I don’t know, you don’t know. Neither does Conor, and his search becomes our search.

RED: Quiet, I wanna listen to this next track. That’s another real prettily picked acoustic melody. Oh, now the strings are kicking in, subtle, kinda dreamy. This is definitely the prettiest Bright Eyes album I’ve heard. But I think I know why it sounds familiar nowÖ

BLUE: “No One Would Riot For Less” is an awesome song. Real political, too. Conor’s aware of the wider world, you know.

RED: Ugh! I dug the melody and then he had to ruin it by opening his mouth. “Death may come invisible or in a holy wall of fire / in the breath between the markers on some black I-80 mile.” What is this faux-poetic crap? “So love me now, hell is coming, kiss me now, hell is here?” I think Conor may have missed his true calling: writing lyrics for nuû-metal bands.

BLUE: Dude, shut up. The last track’s coming up.

RED: Another gentle, kinda bouncy melody. That sparse mix of acoustic guitars and strings is great. But God, I wish Oberst didn’t have such a tendency to follow up a beautiful line like “I keep floating down the river but the ocean never comes” with stilted lines phrasings like, “Now everything is imaginary, especially what you love.” Y’know, everybody always wants to act like Conor Oberst is Bright Eyes, but I swear, his band is better than him on this record.

BLUE: I guess some people just won’t ever get genius.

RED: Sure, whateverÖ Simple acoustic country guitar melodies mixed with trancy orchestration and barely audible tape recorded voices, accompanied by left-leaning lyrics and imagistic takes on modern suburban America – I know where I heard this album before, and liked it better the first time, when it was called “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Jeff Tweedy, now there’s a geniusÖ

BLUE: #^@$!