Release Date: Aug 5, 2008
Record label: Merge
CONOR OBERST (Merge) Rating: NNNN Conor Oberst may have shaken off the Bright Eyes moniker - the main vehicle for his musical output for more than a decade - and assembled a new band under a different label, but his latest offering is the unmistakable cousin of last year's Cassadaga. Birthed in isolation in Tepoztlan, Mexico, a place famed for Aztec magic and paranormal activity, it ploughs the same crop of religion, death and love. But here, polished country rock is replaced with twangy acoustic guitars, honky-?tonk piano and ear-?blasting horns.
Conor Oberst has been making music for longer than some Bright Eyes fans have been alive. In 1993, his debut release (on cassette, even) was released by Saddle Creek predecessor Lumberjack Records. In some ways, this self-titled release isn't too much different than that first release, acoustic guitars leading the way. In most ways, it's quite different.
Former prodigy ventures to Mexico to record transitional album without longtime producerFor half his life, 28-year-old Conor Oberst has been schlepping around a prodigy’s burden. His early coffeehouse gigs and his group Commander Venus stirred up an unheard-of amount of notoriety for a 10th-grade songwriter from Omaha, and then he and his friends followed by forming the band Bright Eyes (among several others) and prosperous clubhouse label Saddle Creek. Ever since, Oberst has served as a skinny, bobbed and bobbing target for those aiming at superiority in the rock-taste status sweepstakes.
For the first time since he was 15, when he started recording as Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has released an album under his given name. The switch has caused people to search for a seismic shift in the music, but it's just not there. Oberst has chalked up the alternate title to a very practical development: Mike Mogis, the multi-instrumentalist, producer, and, along with composter/keyboardist Nate Walcott, the only other permanent member of Bright Eyes, had no hand in this one.
Abandoning the Bright Eyes moniker he's been performing under since his teens, Conor Oberst reverted to his birth name for his 2008 follow-up to 2007's Cassadaga. As he not only released the record under his own name but titled it Conor Oberst, it's hard not to think of the album as a new beginning or statement of purpose, as that's generally the case when a singer/songwriter splits from his main band, but this is such a low-key record it can't support such grand theories. But that subdued attitude is in fact a major difference between this and Bright Eyes albums, where every action tended to be over-amplified, a practice Oberst generally avoids here.
The bright-eyed boy acclaimed in some quarters as the 21st century Bob Dylan has made his first solo album in 13 long years. But why? This eponymous album gives no answers. A new backing group, the Mystic Valley Band, may have ramped Conor Oberst's jangle a little, but their rollicking Americana hardly sounds like soft cheese against Bright Eyes' hard chalk.
What is it about Conor Oberst and his works that speaks so persuasively to the troubled psyche of young America? He may not yet be a household name but, at 28, Oberst is the King of Indie USA, not so much admired and loved by his fans as adored and revered. Under the sobriquet of Bright Eyes, Oberst has released a slew of albums that cover the well-trodden territory between singer-songwriter folk and rocking Americana in the tradition of Neil Young or Ryan Adams, though like them he's much given to side projects and collaborations. This, his eighth album, is the first under his own name, though at this summer's festivals he'll be 'Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band', a reference, perhaps, to the Mexican city of Tepoztlan where he made this record in an improvised studio.
Conor Oberst reportedly sidestepped his Bright Eyes moniker and homegrown Omaha, Neb. , label, Saddle Creek, to try a different approach, but the eponymous product doesn't stray far from the trajectory he's been traveling since 2005's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. If anything, the LP is the most straightforward and accessible of his catalog, but that neither undermines nor compromises his songwriting or gravitas.