Conor Oberst Conor Oberst

[Merge; 2008]

Styles: singer/songwriter, folk
Others: Elliot Smith, The Magnetic Fields

Despite the absence of both the Saddle Creek Records badge and his Bright Eyes moniker, there's little chance of mistaken identity on Conor Oberst's latest full-length. Reaching outside of the Omaha, Nebraska label, this eponymous album -- the first under his legal name since 1995 -- is being released by the slightly more established Merge Records. Home to larger indie acts like Spoon and The Arcade Fire, Merge gave Oberst the freedom to bum around the little pueblos of Tepoztlán until properly steeped in the local ambiance, mediating amongst the cattle bone skulls.

Temporarily parting ways with longtime collaborator and producer Mike Mogis -- and hence omitting the Bright Eyes call sign -- Oberst assembles an organic, inward-facing album backed by The Mystic Valley Band, a team of session musicians who provide both tour and vision quest support. However, his albums eventually boil down to the lyrics and the faithfully bruised way he sings them. On this release, he's done most of the boiling for us. Neglecting rich textures, the spare instrumentals serve merely to keep the poetry in rhythm. Further exploring the dusty motifs hinted at on his last two acoustic-based albums, Conor seems to be gravitating out of the shrouded bedroom towards the quiet expanses of the open mesa.

Instead of clumsily interpreting his scribblings, here is a verbatim tour of the pivotal phrases from each song off Conor Oberst:

1. "Victory's sweet even deep in the cheap seats."
2. "There's no sorrow the sun's not gonna help."
3. "Wrap your head in a picket fence / Rebuild after the hurricane."
4. "I'd give a fortune to your infomercial / If someone would just take my call."
5. "I can't tell where the canvas stops / Homesick as an astronaut."
6. "I don't wanna die in a hospital / You gotta take me back outside."
7. "I hope the word's exposed / A cruel and elaborate hoax."
8. "All my friends, want you to know / I'm gonna miss you when I go."
9. "I used up your compassion / So I've come to make a trade /You can hate me but just love me in return."
10. * Just a 30-second long shofar blast across the desert *
11. "Fingers crossed in the promised land / But you won't be getting in."
12. "I was poised for greatness / I was down and out / I keep death at my heels like a basset hound."

Oberst certainly assumes some vivid roles here, like the tricycle-height perspective on things not yet understood of "Cape Canaveral" and the apprehensive, outstretched hand of "Lenders In The Temple." He also convincingly actualizes some of the Dylan comparisons with rambling eccentricity and a voice strained brittle with conviction on "Get-Well-Cards." Still, many of the tracks see him penning self-focused journal entries that don't engage with the outside world. Misplaced and quivering on "Eagle on a Pole, " it's hard to tell who Oberst even wants to find him, and the cheerfulness of "Sausalito" sounds hypothetical, a smile he puts on when company's around.

Conor flourishes with living, breathing people as his muses, like on the desperate longing of his tortured classic "If Winter Ends" or the gentle reassurance of a friend on fan-favorite "Bowl of Oranges." Trying to channel the supernatural on Cassadaga came off less than clairvoyant. And here, obsessed with his own mortality, Conor isolates himself from what stirs his best writing. Whether concluding he'll die like everyone else or that he's accelerating his own demise, Oberst sounds like he's just trying to reassure himself he won't be here forever.

1. Cape Canaveral
2. Sausalito
3. Get-Well-Cards
4. Lenders In The Temple
5. Danny Callahan
6. I Don’t Want To Die (In The Hospital)
7. Eagle on a Pole
8. NYC – Gone, Gone
9. Moab
10. Valle Mistico (Ruben’s Song)
11. Souled Out!!!
12. Milk Thistle

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