hree years before he went Dutch on an EP with Conor Oberst, Spoon’s Britt Daniel wrote an incredibly sad tune called “Lines in the Suit” where its multitude of voices reached the same crushing conclusion: “How come I feel so washed up at such a tender age?” I’m thinking that this song may have created a turning point in Oberst’s career; since the spurned-lover temper tantrums of Fevers And Mirrors, he’s basically been picking at the aforementioned feeling and proving it isn’t just for ice skaters and spelling bee champions. Like it or not, Oberst does speak for a good swath of the populace: people who’ve spent their lives with their head up their ass and see nothing but a world of shit.
The problem of “too much, too soon” is just as pertinent to Bright Eyes as a whole, seeing as how the band is basically indistinguishable from its frontman. In 2002, Oberst wondered if he could ever tell the truth again, but the real question was whether he’d ever let his band come up with arrangements that could realistically compete with and counterbalance his firehose verbosity; on Lifted, they succeeded. He’s subsequently followed the path of obvious touchstone and fellow notorious liar/asshole Ryan Adams: dubious “roots” album, suffocating bedsit mopery, B-sides collection, fucking Winona Ryder; and now, the California album.
From the Golden State name drops to the faux-Grateful Dead title and cover, Cassadaga tries to present an Oberst more worldly than world-weary. The 13 tracks are pastorally acoustic, rarely go above an amble, and the structures are far looser than the strict formalism of I’m Wide Awake, which felt more like a phony genre exercise than a result of maturity. On the surface, most of Cassadaga sounds absolutely wonderful. Producer Mike Mogis once again proves capable of providing Oberst whatever he wants, whether it’s the angel food waltz that accompanies “Make a Plan to Love Me,” or the scuffed jumble of “Hot Knives.” “Middleman” and “Cleanse Song” are particularly stunning, with hand percussion and various electronic twitters nestling comfortably with crisp acoustics and judicious reverb—ultimately a tantalizing cross-section of I’m Wide Awake and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
The going theory that he’s matured and sedate now that he’s 27 is straight-off-the-press-sheet bull. Bright Eyes’s focal point is also is its primary weakness, as Oberst sounds constantly outclassed by the music behind him. Some might applaud the fact that his hypothermic quaver of the past has been toned down to the point of almost total disappearance, but it turns him from a unique voice to a poor vocalist. It isn’t so much that he can’t hit notes, but that he’s a novelist more than a songwriter, and his words always dictate the music instead of the other way around. It leads to songs pudging out to uncomfortable lengths and phrases bursting at the seams with awkwardly placed words (a particularly bad offender being “the new pyramids in old Manhattan” from “Cleanse Song”).
After fighting against Bush with Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe, Oberst might see himself in the tradition of politically minded truth tellers, but he approaches country music like someone who thinks country fans are fucking morons, completely buying into the construct of “authenticity” but disregarding beautiful simplicity. It isn’t just in the way Saddle Creek albums tend to blanch pedal steels and fiddles of all their twang. And it isn’t just in the way that Oberst tries to make “Soul Singer In a Session Band” realer by adopting a brogue that sounds like an insult to every Irishman in the world. Oberst tries to tackle capital-I issues with the same microscopic detail that made his reminiscences of decade-old kisses and drinking with friends so uniquely touching, and the result is a series of overcooked phrases and Holy Roman Empire allusions that neither punch the gut nor engage the mind. Consider, “Like the body of a centerfold, it spreads”; “Poring over Sanskrit under Ivy League moons.” Oh lord. It’s no wonder that the rousing chorus of “If the Brakeman Turns My Way” is the high point of Cassadaga; it sheds itself of the cod-Dylanizing in the verses and lives true to his words of the past: “all I know is that I feel better when I sing.”
The line from Lifted that haunts Cassadaga the most comes from Oberst’s most successful take on the personal and political: “There is no truth / There is only you / And what you make the truth.” The early stages of Oberst’s career found him cultivating an alluring persona through truly challenging art, a persona that he now clearly sees as a liability. But Cassadaga falters in the same way I’m Wide Awake did: by trying to present his views as universal, it just exposes how Conor Oberst can’t handle the Truth.