Cassadaga (Saddle Creek) sweeps you up in a Wizard of Oz twister, only to drop you into an updated version of the blessed confessional crooners of the 1970s. Conor Oberst, the rods and cones behind Bright Eyes, proffers a noise punctured, countrypolitan-esque swirl of strings, brass and strictly controlled bombast. Like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s Nashville reworking of his catalog on Sings Greatest Palace Music, one gets the sense Oberst is ready to embrace a broader audience. Being a cult figure has its virtues but beauty like this longs to shine as far and wide as possible.
This is no Digital Ash in a Digital Urn but once you’ve made Trans or Self Portrait you never need to go back. Oberst remains a sharp taloned lyricist but his delivery is smoother now. No one has ever sung about the Whore of Babylon with greater sweetness. Cassadaga is like Tim Buckley‘s version of Nashville Skyline, beatific exploration grounded in hay and manure.
“If The Brakeman Turns My Way” takes Leonard Cohen to the Tennessee Waltz, while “Middleman” has the folksy, melancholy trance of early Fairport Convention. “No One Would Riot For Less” is a model of ethereal ache that blooms into a Technicolor road hymn propelled by Oberst’s halting schoolboy pipes. And every cut is equally evocative, equally compelling.
Oberst started releasing music when he was just 14. As he moves towards 30, his songwriting acumen is a lifetime stronger. Cassadaga is his deepest, most universal set to date. And while this is rich soil, one senses the full harvest is only just peeking up from the ground.
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An additional 500 Cool Points for the super peachy keen packaging, which includes a Spectral Decoder to reveal neat phrases like “These myths are sacred and profane” hidden in the fuzzy black and white digipack. It’s like a ’40s Flash Gordon novelty for the Lollapalooza generation!