By: Dennis Cook
Beginning atop a totem pole and concluding in milk thistle, this eponymous outing from Mr. Bright Eyes is as fine a no-frills, singer-songwriter driven outing as they come. Like Beck, Devendra Banhart and a few other contemporary legends-in-the-making, there's a tendency, maybe even a full-blown compunction, to ascribe significance to every note Conor Oberst looses. Nearly every gloss on his work mentions his man-child history, his supposed inheritance of Bob Dylan's mantle, his general importance, his adoring legions. But, truth be told, Oberst is merely one of a number a really fine craftsmen working in rock these days, and this bare bones set of observations serves to remind us of his talents but does little fuel his coronation.
If Dylan must be referenced then Conor Oberst (released August 5 on Merge Records) is more New Morning than Desire or Blonde On Blonde. There's the good, solid sweat of workmen swinging their hammers here – nothing more. Naming an album after one's self (or simply choosing not to name a release) speaks volumes. It says, "Here I am. This is my new calling card, my shorthand statement of identity." And maybe Conor Oberst is this artist's attempt to twist out of his critical shackles and do what he set out to do as a pre-teen – make quality music for a living. None of this suggests this isn't a fine, often enjoyable collection but it's a far cry from Cassadaga (see JamBase's review here), likely his strongest, most spiritually resonate work to date. The leap between that album and this one is akin to Van Morrison's transition from the aching cosmic revelry of Astral Weeks to the white wine & candles follow-up, Moondance. What's lost in depth is counterbalanced by an undisguised sense of play, a joy in simply doing what one loves, and there's little doubt that Oberst and his boisterous, engaged collaborators, tucked away in a house in the Mexican countryside, stocked up with beer, mota and tortillas, armed with instruments and a simple recording rig, had a blast cutting this album. You can feel their pleasure throughout, and it's a tough feeling to refuse.
It'd be too far to call Conor Oberst slight but this really is just another gathering of ditties from a guy who seems to bleed fine material and isn't shy about opening a vein. Each fresh trickle quickly highlights how lazy most of his compatriots, especially the ones shooting us pearly grins on VH1, are lyrically. He's got so many good lines here that he doesn't need to point them out, he just scatters them like breadcrumbs for us to find.
There's nothing the road cannot heal/ Washed under the blacktop/ Gone beneath my wheels.
I know that victory is sweet even deep in the cheap seats.
What gauge measures miracles?/ Whose heart beats electrical?/ We feign sickness with our modern joy.
I don't want to die in a hospital/ They don't let you smoke and you can't get drunk/ All there is to watch are these soap operas/ I don't want to die in a hospital/ You gotta take me back outside.
If I go to heaven/ I'll be bored as hell/ Like a crying baby/ at the bottom of the well.
More so than any previous release, Oberst works to dovetail every element, not throwing a spotlight on the cleverest bits, simply letting the chips lay as they fall, letting us sort out their worth. So, in that parlance, this is a good night at the tables from someone who's run the house a time or two in the past. He's still a winner, of that there is no doubt.
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