Bright Eyes

Cassadaga

(Saddle Creek; 2007)

By Clayton Purdom | 20 April 2007

Whilst pissing on Chris Garneau, ginger Glow neophyte Eric Sams swerved to splash the largest, most eager target, Soofyawn. "I've become accustomed to watching Sufjan occasionally ride one off the cliff (for good or ill)," Sams wrote, "so imagine, Chris, how tiresome it can be to watch you tiptoe around fifty feet from the edge."

The same criticism could be leveled against Conor Oberst's latest miserable missive, Cassadaga, except that the qualities of Sufjan's and Oberst's overextensions are inverted. Sufjan's overextensions grate ("Hello 7/4 horn line about the inventor of the ink pen"), but we stick around for the mellow moments of transcendence, the sanguine seventeen minutes scattered throughout the scurrilous seventy. With Oberst, though, we wait, baited for the final flaming tantrum that justifies the baleful laundry lists. Sams thought Garneau could take a lesson from Sufjan's boundless ambition, from his willingness to cram everything into a song (or song title) in hopes that something might click. Me, I just want Oberst to act crazy again.

Perhaps Lifted, or, The Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear To the Ground (2002) exhausted Oberst's supply of mountainous tirades. It was a fascinating muddle of a record, hissyfitting through country, rocktronica, AM pop, and Blonde on Blonde (1966) jangle, music burned to every nanometer of disc. At length, it screamed "promise." This sprawling howl was what, by contrast, made 2005's I'm Wide Awake It's Morning so blindingly effective: ten tightly coiled acoustic songs that exploded with confetti and gore only in the final minute. Like Paul Greengrass's United 93 -- and I pick this reference intentionally -- the certainty of violence electrified everything leading up to it. The result of Oberst's restraint (and ultimate ecstatic release) was a sort of unlikely classic, a folk album that shocked; some love songs about war.

Cassadaga retains the didacticism of all Oberst's best work but loses entirely the sense of urgency, the tension created when the listener grasps how thinly this musician at hand is holding himself together. If it's not clear through the first five songs that Oberst is steadily ingesting Ritalin and Prozac, it becomes abundantly clear on "Soul Singer in a Session Band," a classically formed Bright Eyes jeremiad that barely escapes the speakers. The adult-contemporary production does no favors: the piano plods delicately, drums hitting their marks cleanly, vocals quavering uncomfortably against the arrangement. When I saw the song performed at Bonnaroo last summer, the instruments slammed against one another, gaining a fucked-up head of steam as the natural counterpoint to the song's title. The uncomfortable irony of the arrangement here is obvious, and even if it is an intentional juxtaposition, elsewhere on the record it is not. (See: the faux-Foo Fighters anthemics of "Hot Knives," the go-nowhere wistfulness of "Classic Cars," the twin six-minute indulgences bookending the record.)

All this sonic maturity -- cribbed mainly, methinks, from Dylan's Jack Frost production -- would be an actual maturation if the songwriting matched Oberst's talent, but only a few times does he approach the sophistication of earlier work. The chorus of "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" leaps convincingly, but it's a waste paired to such listless verses. Predecessor "Four Winds" functions more fully, hooks enjoined, rising and falling. Late in the record, "Coat Check Dream Song" sounds like a successful experiment in percussive flourishes, and "I Must Belong Somewhere" reaches a real climax based on the matched accomplishments of sweetly plain lyrics and ambulant melody, but this late success is tempered by the formless twenty minutes preceding it, by "Middleman," a patronizing patter, "Cleanse Song," an atmospheric island-thing, etc. You get the point.

So does Bright Eyes suck now? Of course not. Cassadaga is a middling mid-career misstep from an artist in it for the long haul. Like an acne-riddled kid talking politics self-importantly, the album feigns a sense of quietude when we all know he'd rather be anywhere, with anyone, making out, or at least talking about making out, or getting drunk and trying to make out, or making a bong, or something. The final lines of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning sounded like the best kind of mission statement: "I could've been a famous singer / If I had someone else's voice / But failure's always sounded better / Let's fuck it up, boys, make some noise." He sounded less like the new Bob Dylan and more like the old Bruce Springsteen, made slightly aloof by a bit of Neil Young grunge, perhaps. Those reference points are gone for now: on Cassadaga Bright Eyes sounds like John Mayer. I'm confident that that wild, careening Oberst will resurface, but right now I'm left with nothing but the blanket acceptance of the fact that I, like anyone else who cared, preferred Oberst when he was emo.