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What I’m listening to this week: Conor Oberst

June 30, 2009

Conor Oberst – 2008

A few years ago, I absolutely hated Conor Oberst.  It was all because of the Bright Eyes song “First Day Of My Life”.  My husband really liked it and played it a lot.  And I liked it too…at first.  The more I listened to it, the more I began to dislike it.  Conor Oberst’s wobbling, thin voice began to irritate me and the diary-entry style lyrics grated on me, and eventually I never wanted to listen to it at all.  So it was with hesitancy (and the passing of several years) that I read mostly positive reviews of the 2007 Bright Eyes album Cassadega, and became interested in hearing the album.  I purchased it, and was honestly surprised at how much I liked it.  On top of that, because I liked Cassadega so much, I also decided to get Conor Oberst’s self-titled solo album last year.

Conor Oberst continues in the tradition of Cassadega in that it has a lot of country influence.  On Cassadega, Oberst managed to blend together country and rock stylings into something that wasn’t quite traditional and wasn’t quite modern.  The songs were a raucous and elaborately noisy good time – even if they did contain serious lyrics – which was a detour from Conor’s tightly indie, lyric-laden work from years prior.  Lyrics are still important, and even prominant, but over time Obest has matured into a more assured songwriter.  He has crafted his sound to balance that more thoughtfully, and his voice has also aged, maintaining that characteristic emotive warble and using it more effectively.

This self-titled album doesn’t quite succeed on all the new and inventive levels that Cassadega did.  There was a change in the band between albums (Conor Oberst was recorded with the Mystic Valley Band) but the main responsibility is with Oberst himself.  Cassadaga was more full, more daring, and looser than this album; even so, Conor Oberst is a solid album, another step in the right direction.

The best songs on the album are the first track, “Cape Canaveral”, a folksy tribute to a mentor and probably also the most reminiscent of Cassadega, and the second “Sausalito”, which has a driving foot-tapping beat and classic songwriter story.  “Danny Callahan” delves the deepest into a country swing with a banging piano accent and tender chorus. “Get-Well-Cards” and “I Don’t Want To Die (In the Hospital)” are fun and highly entertaining live, but maybe too novel to listen to over and over on an album.  The chorus of “Souled Out!!” is pleasing, while the songwriting is heavy-handed and that’s also the case with the slow ballad “Eagle On A Pole”, which veers far too close to that diary-entry past.

It’s hard to say at this point if Conor Oberst is going to continue down a solo path, reunite with Bright Eyes, or have numerous projects going at once.  While the album Conor Oberst didn’t necessarily improve upon what Cassadega started, it did prove – in spades – that Oberst’s commitment to his music is unchanged even if he’s radically changed his approach.

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