I’m really not sure what to make of the latest Bright Eyes album, Cassadaga. It's probably one of the most focused and mature albums Conor Oberst has put together in his musical career, but there is just something about it that nags at me. The closest notion to what I feel is wrong with Cassadaga might be that Conor has grown complacent in his age and success. Too many songs almost sound like he’s going through the numbers, enamored by the soft country ballad he has championed lately, and there isn’t enough fire to keep you warm listening to it. However, that being said, Cassadaga also has some of the finest works Conor has put together as Bright Eyes. Maybe this is just a turning point and not a destination for one of the iconic songwriters of his generation.
Conor has always made it a point to start his albums with, well, noise, and Cassadaga is no different. Once the cacophony of “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)” wears off we actually stumble across a nice little number that hints at what Conor might sound with a full orchestra backing – and it works quite well, much like some of the odd noise-filled ballads of Morrissey like “I Know It’s Going to Happen Someday." It really does set the tone for the rest of the disc – no “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” on this outing. The hints of this almost 70’s pop sound is found again on “To Make a Plan to Love Me,” where the song almost borders on overblown with the female back vocals dancing between the orchestration and Conor’s voice, but it works well.
However, this is where things get dicey for Conor and me: “Four Winds” just doesn’t work. It just leans a little too country for me and lacks any of the real urgency that I’ve always loved in Bright Eyes. Sure, it's pleasant. Sure, it's melodic. It just doesn’t jump at you like it should – it's too safe a move on Conor’s part. The same could be said for a number of songs on Cassadaga: “If The Brakeman Turns Me Way," “Soul Singer in the Session Band,” and “Classic Cars” come to mind. There is just something by-the-numbers that these songs betray. Maybe Conor knows what people like, or maybe he’s just in a song-writing rut.
Of course, if Conor were in a song-writing rut, we wouldn’t have the flipside of Cassadaga. For all the songs that seem to show some lack of inspiration on Conor’s part, there are a set that are some of the best material he has recorded. Just a single listen to “Hot Knives” and you know Conor is on the top of his game, right down to the jaded lyrics like, "When I do wrong I’m with God, she thought." The song itself has a driving rhythm and intricate melody that adds to the drama of Conor singing, "I’ve made love, yeah I’ve been fucked, so what?". The other end of the spectrum is the dark and beautiful “Middleman,” which depending on the day might be my favorite Bright Eyes song ever. It's so richly textured and nuanced both musically and lyrically, you feel that Conor might be tapping an even larger pool of talent we haven’t even seen yet.
“Middleman” opens the half of the album that shows the real depth of Conor’s song-writing skills and makes up for the country-ballad boredom of the first half. “Cleanse Song” is a more uplifting version of “Middleman” and ends up as one of the most mature and developed songs on the disc. “Coat Check Dream Song” is the closest to the sounds he created on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn with a touch of a synth-rock vibe mixed with the gentle tones, while “I Must Belong Somewhere” shows that Conor can make an interesting country ballad, building it carefully piece by piece into a swinger. The closing “Lime Tree” is about a bare as Conor has presented himself lately, starting off with just Conor and his guitar before slowly merging with strings and backing vocals, a sound that we haven’t really heard for Bright Eyes before this and it works well, bringing the album to slow and tender close (even with the almost anachronistic Sinatra-like string flourishes mixed in).
In a sense, Cassadaga is a bimodal album, divided into uninspired and brilliant halves. It is also, at least from what I hear, Conor’s first “adult” album. His sound has become more mature and refined. He also sounds, for what might be the first time, a real career musician, and that is a both a good and bad thing as it can both develop complacency and creativity. However, the plusses on Cassadaga far outweigh the minuses and maybe that the bar that we grade Bright Eyes on is not really fair, but when you become an icon for a genre, sometimes things can’t always be fair.