Bright Eyes

Four Winds EP

(Saddle Creek; 2007)

By Alan Baban | 2 March 2007

The upcoming full-length Cassadagga presents a new, pared-down Bright Eyes, built around the core troupe of Mike Mogis, Nate Walcott and some kvetch called Conor, who gets to yelp and blurt out and do a lot of coconut things that will most likely annoy a lot of people and enamour a lot more. This is, as it turns out, the common reception to Bright Eyes albums these days.

But this EP is a less didactic, divisive affair; most people are just going to see this as six new Bright Eyes songs, which would be slightly missing the point. The five B-sides that face the hard task of following a song as tenaciously confrontational and jazzed up as the title track choose to opt out of its singular, driving focus and offer up a series of rustic musical digressions. So, okay, let some people call it a genre-exercise; but whether he’s vibing out to the soft sway and lilt of Leonard Cohen on “Smoke Without Fire” or revving up his Crazy Horse for “Stray Dog Freedom,” Oberst’s authoritative songwriting voice is in tow, even if, by and large, he is appropriating the time-honoured style of others.

The main body of the EP has a refreshingly open and loose feel. It’s not Oberst’s quivering vocal performance that drives “Tourist Trap,” it’s the lightly rolling rhythm guitar, stretched out into a lazy standing wave of blurred pedal steel and haunting piano tinkles. Like Bright Eyes’ very best material, it’s graced by a striking simplicity and a feeling of elements coming to full fruition, of song and subject matter developed and explored, rather than a gimmick bandied about all blasé. It’s a refreshing contrast from the bloated castle concepts of, say, Sufjan. Don’t get me wrong -- Illinois (2005) mostly stands up, but one can’t help but locate the irony in a songwriter innovating so fervently that it becomes the unilateral component of his increasingly predictable music, more a reduced formula than proliferating mayhem.

Besides, if the song “Four Winds” can be taken as indicative of Cassadaga’s overall thematic arch and quality, it not so much hints at but radiates a sense of maturity and odd mordancy that’s a great fit for the tumultuous, careening strings that lace the hook. Deftly making use of the choppy limitations of Oberst’s range, the song’s fire-and-brimstone lyrics are littered with cagey, spat plosives, the unceasing corrupted flow telling as much of the story as the lyrics: “Well I went back by renting Cadillac and company jet / Like a newly orphaned refugee retracing my steps / All the way to Cassadagga to commune with the dead / They said, ‘You’d better look alive.’” The single’s vibrancy is so poignant as to overshadow much of the rest of the EP’s rusticated jive. But that’s merely a testament of the power of songwriting on offer, and the promise that the new full length holds, rather than an indictment of the quality of the B-sides.