By Colin McGowan | 9 August 2008
Brief caveat: “Milk Thistle” is pretty good, I guess. It’s mostly empty space and doesn’t try too hard: spare, somber, and the closest thing to genuine sincerity Conor Oberst musters on his self-titled venture into solo artist-dom.
Otherwise, this thing is a fucking abomination. A good friend of mine (Conor devotee #1) recently extended an invitation to see Oberst in concert with Bob Dylan. Fuck, I’m not going to pay 40 bucks to watch Conor Oberst cutely run his hands over his bare cheeks contemplatively, strike awkward poses that imply angst (again, cutely), and watch patches of the same ole archetypes eat it up, all while sorta validating all those Bob Dylan comparisons we’ve endured through the years as they share a venue.
So damn it all if Oberst didn’t do me the favor of providing me the same horrid experience in album form. I’m probably doing a poor job of separating Conor Oberst from Conor Oberst, but this really is a manifestation of everything I’ve ever disliked about Oberst the persona/prodigy/phenomenon. It’s smug in all the wrong places—one must be overconfident to deliver a line like “I felt your poltergeist love like savannah heat” sans irony—so brazen, in fact, that the vaguely poetic caterwauling now feels completely disingenuous. Hubris and doe-eyed confusion don’t mix as seamlessly as Oberst apparently anticipated.
Plus, the cute dysphoria is as dreadful as it’s ever been. Oberst reaches for wistful like some drunken douchebag perched precariously on the edge of some suburban roof, arms outstretched towards the sky (could be touching did it not feel so manufactured), looking over his shoulder to make sure everyone was watching him amid false epiphany. And then he falls off the roof like an asshole, which puts a hitch in this little metaphor because a violent fall implies much of anything interesting occurs. It doesn’t. Oberst’s eponymous opus is too self-assured to realize it is a monochromatic, message-less heap of cringeworthy non-sequiturs masquerading as sincerity, clad in Oberst’s trembling tenor, an instrument worn rusty and weak about two years ago and now threatening to become my least favorite sound in the world.
As I conclude this little tantrum, I concede that there may in fact be more to all of this. Perhaps through a different perspective or careful inspection or frantic rationalization, there is a way to parse this slight offering. What is seemingly constructed from ego, artistic confusion, and repeated listens to the wrong Dylan records could be something like pupation and Oberst may be having trouble shifting away from his bleeding heart confessions to more nuanced material. But neither approach succeeds, or even seems like it could succeed in the future, as Oberst alternates between tired themes and dreadfully botched attempts at ambling poetry. From admittedly unsympathetic ears, it’s a fruitless mess caked with vanity and smothered by its own insular delusions of prosperity.