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On 'Cassadaga,' Oberst Settles Into Older Age

From left, Nate Walcott, Mike Mogis and Conor Oberst were the key contributors on
From left, Nate Walcott, Mike Mogis and Conor Oberst were the key contributors on "Cassadaga." (By Butch Hogan)

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By David Malitz
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Conor Oberst doesn't seem as though he's out to prove anything on "Cassadaga," and that may be a first. The outspoken indie rock heartthrob -- recording under the Bright Eyes moniker for a decade and winning legions of obsessed fans with his verbose, emotional songs -- has always had a flair for the dramatic. (His career-defining, 73-minute magnum opus, released when he was just 22, came with pretentious 14-word album title.) And you can't talk about drama without mentioning his voice, a desperate, quavering wail, like a kid who just spent a night in the freezing woods hiding from the Blair Witch.

But Oberst is 27 now, and he certainly sounds more grown up on "Cassadaga," his sixth full-length studio album. His shaking howl gives way to a smoother, less cloying croon, but doesn't lack for passion. The kid who yelped "I believe that lovers should be tied together / And thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather" on 2000's "A Perfect Sonnet" can still reel off some teenage diary-worthy lyrics. Yet when he sings "I was a hopeless romantic / Now I'm just turning tricks" on the standout "Soul Singer in a Session Band," it sounds like an honest moment of reflection from someone who has been recording and touring for half of his life.

There's a lack of overt political commentary, though Bright Eyes participated in MoveOn.org's 2004 Vote for Change tour. "Democracy's shackled hands," "hawks of war in their capitol" and "madness of the governments" are mentioned, but it's a small theme on an album that has a mostly vagabond, introspective feel. Nobody will ever mistake Oberst for being happy, but he sounds more calm and content throughout "Cassadaga." (The title refers to a central Florida community for psychics, and the first track begins with a two-minute female voiceover, something about "the center of energy" . . . clearly Oberst hasn't banished all pretentiousness. Still, it's less painful than that 14-word album title: "Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground.")

As hard as it is to look past Oberst, he perhaps isn't the star of "Cassadaga." That honor falls to Mike Mogis, who produced the album in addition to contributing bass, glockenspiel, pedal steel, vibraphone, mandolin, lap steel, dobro . . . you get the idea. A longtime member of the band, he truly feels like Oberst's equal for the first time: He possesses the same deft, elaborate touch in the studio as Los Angeles pop master Jon Brion and creates an orchestral alt-country sound that is ornate, yet organic. Only Nate Walcott's string arrangements -- and "Cassadaga" has as many strings as a marionette convention -- bog things down on occasion, notably in the overly syrupy "Make a Plan to Love Me."

All roads lead back to Oberst, though, and in an odd way "Cassadaga" is his most fulfilling album. His songwriting no longer relies on youthful brashness, though at times the almost reckless insolence that made him a hero to many is missed. "Cassadaga" may be modest by Oberst's standards, but it also may be the work that firmly establishes him as one of the top songwriters of his generation -- just as people suggested he might become all those years ago.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Four Winds," "Soul Singer in a Session Band," "Classic Cars"


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