After nearly a decade spent trying to convince people that Bright Eyes wasn’t nearly as bad as their always vocal detractors maintained that they were, and, in fact, that they were much, much better, I’m only now starting to see their point: that there was something just a little too desperate about Conor Oberst and company, something a little too cloying and earnest, something that made the band sound just a little too pleased with itself. I realize the strength of these arguments now, on the occasion of Oberst’s new self-titled solo record, his first since 1995, because it’s so immediately and refreshingly free of all those questionable qualities.
It’s not to say that any of the musicians who’ve come to make up Bright Eyes are to blame, though, because it’s always just been a vessel for Oberst anyway. For the past few years, probably starting with the massive undertaking of releasing two records, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, on the same day, if not a few years earlier with the lofty, ambitious Lifted Or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, there seems to be an awful lot of baggage that comes along with the idea of releasing a Bright Eyes record. The stakes are higher, obviously, now that they’ve become one of the indie world’s most popular (if still polarizing) acts and, frankly, there’s a lot of money on the line. There seems to be a perceived need, on Oberst’s part, to make each one the biggest ever, the most expressive, the widest-reaching — every time a Bright Eyes record is released, it’s a major event, with TV appearances, massive tours and a ridiculous amount of attention from the press. It’s a lot of pressure, for sure, and, looking back, Oberst’s response to all of it has been slightly off the mark. He’s gone bigger when, all along, he should have been going smaller.
Recorded early this year by Andy Lemaster in a sleepy town in Mexico with a group of musicians (Nick Freitas, Nate Walcott, Jason Boesel, Taylor Hollingsworth and Macey Taylor) who now go by the name the Mystic Valley Band (don’t worry, Devendra is nowhere to be found), the album marks a new approach for Oberst, who sounds more relaxed than he ever has before, which, granted, isn’t saying much for the famously tweaky songwriter. But there’s a new comfort level on display here — the vocals aren’t as shaky, nor are they as plagued by what could have been read as adolescent whining, and he almost never sounds like he’s going to break into tears, which is nice, obviously. There’s an admirable simplicity to the construction of the songs too, with the entire record dominated by standard country-rock instrumentation: guitars take center stage, augmented only by drums, bass and some honky-tonk piano.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but a recording of Oberst performing a John Prine song called ‘Crazy As a Loon’ recently made its way around the internet, and it seems he’s taken quite a shine to Prine’s famously direct approach to storytelling and songwriting. It would make a good bit of sense, too. Oberst has been writing and releasing records since he was a teenager, and he’s still not even 30. It remains to be seen whether he’ll maintain the newfound composure he displays on this record, at the same time reimagining what exactly a Bright Eyes record is supposed to be, but for the time being, it will stand as some of the most impressive and accessible work of his divisive career.