Photograph by Autumn DeWilde
Who Are You and What Have You Done with Bright Eyes? : For his self-titled new album, Conor Oberst traveled to the alien-sighting capital of Mexico.
Conor Oberst makes tracks for Santa Cruz this weekend with an eponymous new release and a welcome dose of maturity.
By Paul Davis
Conor Oberst wants to grow up.
Granted, the indie impresario has always been precocious. Releasing full-length albums barely into his teens, an icon for wayward teenage lovers before he could legally drink, hailed as the "New Dylan" by the age of 23--Oberst, under the guise of his Bright Eyes moniker, has always seemed accomplished far beyond his years. The record label he started with his brother in high school, Saddle Creek, is one of the largest and most influential indie labels in business today, and he has gone on to form another successful vanity label, Team Love. An indie rock magnate who happens to have been embraced by both his own generation and older rockers yearning for the deliverance of a new genius, Conor Oberst has accomplished more at the age of 28 than most punk kids will in their entire lives. He may be the U.S. Army of emo.
But no matter how preternaturally mature Oberst might seem, his songwriting sensibility often seems perpetually prepubescent. Sure, there are plenty of the accoutrements of artistic maturity in Oberst's work-- singing with the incomparable Emmylou Harris on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, flirting with orchestral arrangements on Cassadaga. But for all the artistry of those albums, there's been a disingenuous subtext. Tellingly, despite all the plaudits for Oberst's refined work in Bright Eyes, he seemed the most comfortable in his skin during his 2002 Desaparecidos side-project, in which he indulged his dormant punk rock chops.
Though Bright Eyes albums such as Lifted ... or I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning stand as impressive testaments to Oberst's artistic development, the songwriting has always tripped at times upon its own preciousness. What's precocious at 19 can be off-putting at 30, and it's likely that no one is more aware of this than Oberst himself.
I Want To Believe
So what is an icon, already anointed a legend at the relatively young age of 28, to do? Burdened by the weight of past successes, feeling the need to make a personal, adult statement, Oberst did the unexpected: he followed the flying saucers to Tepoztlán, Mexico. There, in a small town best known for its preponderance of extraterrestrial sightings, holed up in a communal living situation with the leanest possible lineup of rock musicians, he set to writing, and rocking, in a way he never has before.
Recorded entirely in Tepoztlán in January and February, the resulting album meandered toward completion in an off-the-cuff, casual way. In a temporary studio in a villa called Valle Místico on the outskirts of town, Oberst enjoyed the luxury of escaping expectations while hashing out the songs that would become Conor Oberst.
His eponymous release, which hits the shelves two days after his Aug. 3 appearance in Santa Cruz, is a startling album, a much-needed left turn that has freed him from his indulgences while earning some of the maturity he has so long desired. It's a loose, strikingly rocking record, though not in the way his longtime fans might expect. Instead, Oberst and his Mystic Valley Band, which features Bright Eyes alumni Nate Walcott and Jason Boesel (most recently of Rilo Kiley), make like Dylan and the Band in 1966, lashing blues, folk and honky-tonk to muscular rock steeped in Americana.
It seems that Oberst has tried his best to clean the slate and start anew. In a surprising turn, he chose to release Conor Oberst on Merge Records, a label best known for its work with the Arcade Fire and M. Ward. The defection has led to furious debate on the Saddle Creek message boards, where fans speculate about a possible rift between Oberst and the label. Industry chatter suggests a scenario far more prosaic: considering Oberst's long-established ties with Merge's founder Mac McCaughan, whose work in seminal power-pop band Superchunk has had a clear influence on Oberst, the likelihood is that that he merely chose to release the album on Merge as a one-off favor for a friend.
Conor Oberst bears the weight of its namesake's desire to mature. At times, the Dylan-isms come on too strong, and the classic-rock references are too on the nose. Oberst appears to be trying to completely exorcise the trappings of his emo-punk roots, evoking the Band and, shockingly, even Southern rock. When he goes for multicultural uplift, such as on "Souled Out," it comes off as dated at best and patronizing at worst. Lyrics like "the barrio starts two streets over, Miguel he's a friend of mine, brick weed built his reputation, like dry ice in the summertime," are so fetishizingly inclusive that they resemble the sort of thing post-"Smooth" Rob Thomas would write.
There's a lot that has emerged from Oberst's brief escape from his usual habitat, though. On the new release, he reaches deeper, and more convincingly, into himself and his subjects. No longer do the characters act as proxies for Oberst--instead, on a song like "I Don't Want to Die (In a Hospital)", rumored to be about his grandfather, he achieves a sense of existential desperation that transcends self-indulgence. "Lenders in the Temple" is a painfully honest kiss-off, with plucked acoustic guitar strings anchoring Oberst's skewering narrative of emotional discord. Lead single "Danny Callahan" is the sort of breezy lark that's deceptively lightweight yet comes from a tough-minded place.
The release also touches repeatedly on religion, an increasing obsession for Oberst. There was plenty of evangelical-skewering and spiritual inquiry on Cassadaga, but on Conor Oberst, he delves deeper into his skeptical fascination. In a recent interview with Paste Magazine, Oberst, who was raised a Catholic, speaks of his conflicted relationship with religion, saying, "I want to find something like that. Badly. But in all the forms where it's been offered to me, they seem fraudulent, you know?"
You can hear that conflict on Cassadaga, and to a greater degree, on Conor Oberst. On "Milk Thistle," he sings, "If I go to heaven/ I'll be bored as hell/ like a little baby/ at the bottom of a well." It's far from a blanket dismissal of the power of faith, though. Oberst mentioned in a recent interview with the British Independent his growing interest in faith and spirituality and cited God Is Red, Deloria Vine Jr.'s document of Native American religious traditions. Though Oberst never draws the distinction in clear, dark lines--another testament to his growth as a songwriter--his internal conflict between skepticism and faith informs the entire album.
In other ways, Oberst has retrenched. Long an active and vocal Democrat supporter, Oberst has veered increasingly toward hamfisted political pronouncements on recent albums, a trend that with any luck reached its nadir on Cassadaga with "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," a song that offered an oversimplified take on the current political climate so shallow it came off as a PSA for MoveOn.org. Though Oberst remains vocally outspoken in his politics, and currently his support for Barack Obama, thankfully he avoids the hand-wringing agitprop on Conor Oberst, favoring topics on which he has a much more nuanced take.
Catch Him If He Falls
Considering the critical pass Oberst has received on previous releases, reaction to the new album is mixed. Rolling Stone gave it three stars out of five, which is on the low end of the magazine's top-heavy rating scale. Tastemaking blog Stereogum gave an advance of the album its slightly grudging approval, and other reviews have been encouraging yet reserved. Coming off of Cassadaga, a release that narrowly avoided the inevitable backlash, Oberst needs to play to his base with this one. Instead, he's decided to venture further into unexpected territory, and the loyalists may be sharpening their knives.
But if Conor Oberst ends up being his "et tu, Brute?" moment, it will be a shame. Like his hero Neil Young, Oberst doesn't really give a shit about the passing whims of his listeners and the critics. He's always been willing to challenge them and take risks, sometimes to great effect, such as with his punk lark Desaparecidos, but sometimes to his ruin, as in his quickly forgotten electronic foray Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
Ultimately, this is what defines Oberst as an artist--not the breathless hype of aging rock critics yearning for a new Dylan or Springsteen, or the seductive appeal of his self-cultivated mythology. It's his stubborn willingness to take the time to grow and mature as an artist during a time when such a concept seems reserved for the rarefied likes of Radiohead or Coldplay. It's his willingness to run the risk of alienating his most ardent supporters in a quest to find his adult voice.
This is a treacherous path to take. Consider the halting missteps of former indie prodigies Beck and P.J. Harvey as they attempted to navigate artistic maturation. Like Neil Young during his difficult '80s period, which ultimately earned him cred but garnered little appreciation at the time, you've got to risk it all before you can enjoy your critical homecoming. Some of what you do will be loved, some will be drubbed and some will be halfheartedly declared a "return to form." Oberst understands this and was willing to take a leap, following flying saucers and chasing adulthood through a stint in Mexico. The slings and arrows are waiting in the wings, but if Oberst can weather them, his most interesting work is yet to come.
CONOR OBERST and the Mystic Valley Band play Sunday, Aug. 3, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 at Streetlight Records or www.ticketweb.com.
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