Mainstream recognition beckons as Conor Oberst’s career hits album number nine
If there’s one rock specimen in mortal need of stamping out, it’s the morose singer-songwriter. Its tyranny can be seen all over our once-pure landscape: Nutini, Morrison, Blunt et al, sit smug as Britain’s biggest artists. If Nick Drake – the one who made the whole enterprise acceptable in the first place – was still alive, he would be ripe for excommunication, his legacy having smited our colourful world of rock’n’roll with the cancer of beigeness.
But the worst thing of all about the brutal hegemony enjoyed by these balefully bland singer-songwriters is how they ruin it for the small percentage of their number who are doing something genuinely soulful with the template: the Liam Frosts, the Willy Masons and most of all, the Conor Obersts. Sure, the leader of Bright Eyes is a direct descendant of the singer-songwriter bloodline, but he’s taken the template he’s inherited and done things of magic and wonder. A genuine renaissance man, in Saddle Creek he founded the coolest independent label in America, giving the world The Faint, Rilo Kiley and Cursive. Virtually a lone political conscience in American indie, he took to his bed for a week when Bush won that second election. At the same time, he’s still enough of a flawed fuck-up to risk his reputation by loading up on mushrooms before his Glastonbury set and saying the unsayable about a barely-cold-in-his-grave John Peel.
Then, of course, there’s the music. With nine albums in less than 10 years (not including full-length releases under various other monikers) here’s a musical prodigy happy to sit at home in Omaha, untroubled by these semi-acoustic bastards. Or at least, that was the case until 2005 when singles from his two simultaneous albums, ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ and ‘Digital Ash In A Digital Urn’, appeared at Numbers One and Two in the usually-conservative American sales charts. Suddenly Bright Eyes was a big deal, yet in a fittingly morbid twist, it happened with his worst records – neither of which were a patch on his earlier, mightier works, ‘Lifted (Or The Story Is In The Soil So Keep Your Ear To The Ground)’ and ‘Fevers And Mirrors’.
So to follow the 2005 albums, Oberst returns to familiar ground. Cassadaga is a Seneca Indian word translating at “rocks beneath the water”. The Earth motifs and lilting country rock with a taste for danger both harking back to that previous career watermark, ‘Lifted…’. Most of the songs measure up: the bouncy ‘Four Winds’ showing him unafraid of blanket radio play, while ‘Make A Plan To Love Me’ is the most instantaneously beautiful song of his career – a tale of romantic negligence that’s lent a barbed, poison-ivy edge. Really, only ‘Middleman’ and ‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ sound like filler. This is about as close to a bid for mainstream acceptance as you’re going to get from Bright Eyes, and while that makes ‘Cassadaga’ veer dangerously close to the stylings of the accused, two things redeem him: the fragility of his cracked voice, and the fact that you’re as likely to hear a Conor Oberst song simply about harsh treatment from women as you are to find him taking tea round Peel Acres. Instead, these songs are testaments to the resilience of the human spirit, and Conor paints a collection of people all learning to cope. The desperate housewife of ‘Hot Knives’ who reacts to her husband’s infidelity with hedonistic revenge; the ‘Soul Singer In A Session Band’, the person with the gift that their occupation stifles; ‘Classic Cars’’ tale of Mrs Robinson-style suburban scandal. Yet most pointed is ‘No One Would Riot For Less’ – a dystopian picture of a moral-free future world, which is essentially a tender song of two lovers learning to survive in a world where neighbour kills neighbour over boxes of fish fingers.
These aren’t sad songs, though. As Conor told us himself recently, “The thing about human beings, as imperfect as they are, they possess an incredible ability to reinvent themselves and become better than they were.” Could Conor be trying to pull that off himself? Possibly. As well as the grown-up lilt to the music, ‘Cleanse Song’ sees this self-confessed lush experiment with drying out. He finds it pretty boring, of course, but as the one overt first-person narrative on the album, it signals his own capacity to grow and change. Meanwhile, with the erstwhile hermit falling over himself to be interviewed, it sounds like he’s finally ready to be a big star. He’s made an album that will appeal as much to indie snobs as owners of records by mainstream singer-songwriters, and this could turn into Bright Eyes’ biggest contribution: in showing how absorbing introspection can be. Perhaps the likes of Blunt will be toppled by the shame.