Conor Oberst’, y’say? Hmmm, according to our copy of Album Title Analysis For Dummies, the eponymous naming of an album 15 years into your career generally denotes an artist’s belief that they have reached a defining point in their career, a stylistic crystallisation of their essence and soul, that all that came before was mere teething pains and adolescent traineeship in their art. “We have reached musical adulthood,” they are saying. “Please disregard all that amateurish faffing about before and judge us only from this coming-of-age onwards.” See also ‘Blur’, ‘The Beatles’, ‘The Cure’ and, um, ‘I Am Kloot’.
As marvellous a record as it is, it would be heartbreaking if Conor Oberst were to claim that ‘Conor Oberst’ was the culmination of his career to date, marking the point where he matures into the performer he’s been striving all these years to become. Because through three previous solo albums and seven Bright Eyes studioalbums (not to mention his work with Desaparecidos, Park Ave and Commander Venus) Oberst’s genius has lay in the dementia bubbling up through his folk singer disguise. Like a feral pet of Tom Waits forced to live out in the wolf kennels since birth, Oberst has largely worked within country and folk music, but constantly striven to stretch their parameters; a caged animal trying to burst out the bars. His desperate yowls, heart-wrenching sobs and drug-broken freak-outs brought the red-raw emotion of fresh wounds to these stale genres, savagely remoulding them with hot, panting breaths of life. Often you’d wonder how he could play guitar so well in a straitjacket; he was, magnificently, Bedlam’s best busker.
After all that, could he really just have wanted to be Bob Dylan all along? Recorded in a mountainside villa called Valle Mistico in Tepoztlan, Mexico (an area known for UFO sightings and magical Aztec goings on) with a collective known only as The Mystic Valley Band, ‘Conor Oberst’ is Oberst’s most by-the-book traditional folk album to date. Perhaps he’s a slave to his surroundings – where his stay in a medium and spiritualist commune lent an otherworldly air to Bright Eyes’ last album ‘Cassadaga’, here recording under the Mexican stars has turned Oberst towards campfire classicism. There are moments in ‘Get-Well-Cards’ which could easily be Dylan doing ‘The Weight’ and the honky-tonk piano on hoedown thumper ‘I Don’t Want To Die (In The Hospital)’ prompts images of Jools Holland cheesily plonking along on Later… There’s also, bar ‘I Don’t Want To Die…’’s tale of a deathbed patient hurrying to yank his boots on in order to pop his clogs in the sunshine, precious little lyrical trauma to elicit Oberst’s impassioned warble of old. Maudlin reflection abounds; wild, barking mania is discarded as the trappings of a deranged youth.
What there is is a sense of sombre accomplishment and immaculate songwriting which, albeit more gently, still twists the knife in the side of folk music. Red House Painters-ish opener ‘Cape Canaveral’ lollops subtly along, taut with the tension of a painful nostalgia and as intoxicating as Oberst’s best; stripped-down ballads ‘Lenders In The Temple’ and ‘Eagle On A Pole’ quiver with suppressed punk energy and ‘Danny Callahan’ is as breezy and carefree as an all-night 12-bar jam in the middle of a peyote bender. And the record really comes alive when they plug in the ’lectrics for the Hendrix hornpipe march of ‘NYC – Gone, Gone’ and ‘Souled Out!!!’, which is Oberst’s impression of The Eagles straddling monitors.
Trad? Why yes, but even the most mundane folk formulas still sizzle in Conor’s trembling hands. It’s not the definitive work the self-titling might suggest but it’s sure as hell worthy of the name.