In May of 2000, a 20-year-old Conor Oberst took the stage at Brownies, the Lower East Side music venue that would eventually become the bar Hi-Fi. He was even scrawnier and younger looking than I’d heard, hiding his miniscule frame beneath a bulky white turtleneck sweater and planting himself in a chair placed in the middle of the stage. On each side of him sat a variety of refreshments: beers, mixed drinks, some water. His band consisted of many of the people we would eventually recognize from other bands on Saddle Creek Records, and while he was, even then, the hands-down center of attention, it was the band that got him through the set, providing support both musically and emotionally — helping him to navigate through changes, even re-tuning his guitar, so that he would be able to focus squarely on the songs. The set list was culled mostly from the soon-to-be-released Fevers and Mirrors, and as he nervously sang his way through, sipping frantically from his selection of drinks, it was clear that he was as enamored of the spotlight as he was frightened by it.
And while at this point, there was no shortage of people calling him out as a melodramatic crybaby, I still say it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. There was that vague feeling people write about, where you could tell something was happening, where you knew that if this dude could figure out some shit, he was going to be around for a really long time. The way he sang, the way he drank, the way he shook so much he kept almost falling off his chair — it was a spectacle, to say the least, and yet it never seemed like an act. He sang about fevers a lot, about writhing around on bathroom floors, about depression in general; but there was always something else lurking in the background: a lover, a perfect combination of colors, the knowledge that things had been better once before and could be again. What kept the whole thing from becoming a self-indulgent mess was that it didn’t come off like he was complaining about things that were bad, but like he was actively pursuing and trying to take solace in things that were good.
But then 9/11 happened. And to his credit, Oberst decided he couldn’t very well just sing about himself anymore, about how much he hated himself, when buildings were being blown up and our politicians were starting to act crazier and crazier. His songs became less about how fucked he was and more about how fucked we all were. It was subtle at first, and whenever he did fall back on the self-loathing that’d made him a bona fide indie-rock superstar, he would indict himself long before anyone else had the chance, and as a result, his follow-up record, Lifted… Or the Story is in the Soil, was a huge success, both artistically and commercially, as was 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. They were so good because they were centered around Oberst’s ongoing struggle to fulfill the responsibility he felt to look at the larger picture rather than simply at himself — a struggle that most decent people are at least passingly familiar with.
On Cassadaga, Oberst appears to have come out of the struggle on top, leaving behind the sad-sack, confused kid stuff almost completely, seeming far more sure of himself. He’s done an admirable amount of growing up, which, at 27, was bound to happen sooner or later, and yet for much of Cassadaga, something seems to be missing. His commentary on politics and religion, while perfectly appropriate and no doubt necessary, is, like so much commentary on religion and politics in popular music, not nearly as insightful, biting or nuanced as it needs to be, and it’s not quite enough to give the record the gravity his best work has had.
But as hard as it is to complain about any artist who takes on such issues, it’s equally hard to
complain about an artist who’s gotten past the kind of internal conflicts we typically associate with adolescence. The problem, though, is the type of conflicts Oberst has put in their place — specifically, the kind people who aren’t semi-famous musicians have never experienced.
Over the past few years, Oberst has been everywhere: late night TV, on stage with Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe, even in the tabloids with Winona Ryder. For anyone, let alone a kid from Omaha, Nebraska, it’d be a lot to take in, and he’s trying to make sense of it in his songs, the same way he’s always tried to make sense of things in his songs. It’s touching when he sings lines like, “If I get out of California, I’m going back to my home state to tell them all that I’ve made a mistake,” or “I grew old in an instant, now I’m all on my own,” but only because we know so much about the tight-knit community of friends and musicians he came up with and has now all but left behind. What those words mean to people like you and me, though, well, I’m not exactly sure.
Musically, Cassadaga isn’t a huge departure from the band’s recent work. The first single, ‘Four Winds’, is an upbeat country song that sounds more like Whiskeytown than anything Bright Eyes has done before, and they pull it off brilliantly. On other tracks, we see more reliance on strings and background vocals. As a whole, things are more subdued, and the sudden explosions and impassioned screaming are nowhere to be found.
It’d be easy to call Cassadaga the most mature record Bright Eyes has ever released, but doing so would in turn be calling his earlier work immature, which I’m not ready to do. On those early records, at those early shows, when he sang and drank and shook like his problems were the most important thing in the world, he was right — because they were to all the people who felt the same way, and judging by his sales figures and meteoric rise to success, there were lots of them. Now, on the other other hand, he’s got one set of problems (war, the Religious Right) that he’s not capable of speaking about eloquently enough, and another set (fame, life on tour) to which most of his listeners can’t relate. The record suffers because of it, and it remains to be seen if it’s something he can address. But watching him try might be the best part.