Apr 162007

Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Cassadaga
Label: Saddle Creek Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.4.10
Score: 8/10

Cassadaga is a fairly significant turn for Bright Eyes in several ways. It marks a distinctive shift in the group’s sound (comparable in scope to that heard on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) towards the Country / Western / Alt Country area of the musical spectra. And for lyricist / songwriter Conor Oberst, it displays a level of political and social awareness not present in previous efforts. And like all new paths, this one starts out with some noticeable rough spots. The political commentary is occasionally shallow or reductionist, the country twang is occasionally done up a little too much, the intense self-reflection and self-reference (hallmarks of most of Bright Eyes’ work) occasionally takes a turn for the decidedly pretentious.

The net result, however, is a moving, often charming, and intensely personal look at the world. The tone of the album is at turns introspective, narrative, and observational, giving a sense (present in a great deal of the rest of Bright Eyes’ corpus) that the band really is a mouthpiece for Oberst’s view of the world. And while how autobiographical the album is remains an open question, it certainly has a biographical feel to it. This intensely personal tone (as well as several of the lyrical and musical themes of the album) is set early with the single, “Four Winds.” This rocking, alt-country track serves as a far more fitting opening to the album than the plodding, introspective, “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed).” “Four Winds” manages to neatly wrap most of the important facets of the album in one track, which makes it the ideal single. Religious and social commentary (“The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Koran is mute”) mix with personal reflection and a recurring theme of wandering and a search for truth. And with a intensely rhythmic, heavily country-influenced sound, the song also gives the listener a musical sense of what to expect in the rest of the album.

And what the listener has to look forward to is largely positive and quite varied for the extent to which it fits into the orchestral Country feel to which the band commits. This is hardly a surprise given the diverse cast of talented musicians Oberst has managed to collect. Notables include M. Ward, Gillian Welsh (along with long-time associate, guitarist David Rawlings), Ben Kweller, Jason Boesel (of Rilo Kiley fame), and Janet Weiss (formerly of Sleater Kinney). The result of this collaboration is a rich musical complexity that not only makes for a pleasant, interesting listening experience, but means that Cassadaga rewards repeat listening with the kind of depth that always turns up new musical tidbits.

One track which epitomizes this musical depth is the deceptively simple-sounding “Classic Cars.” At first, this introspective character sketch sounds to be a fairly typical and unnoteworthy alt-country combination of vocal-driven melodies supported by guitar-heavy harmonies. But beyond Jason Boesel’s varied, interesting, and almost-unpatterned drumming and the excellent guitar lines laid down by Mike Mogis and David Rawlings, there’s some excellent piano work (courtesy of Nate Walcott) and Gillian Welsh’s smooth, unwavering alto singing backup. The net effect is a rich, interesting track that begs to be put on repeat.

But the boons brought by this impressive musical cast aren’t limited to one or two tracks, but rather heard all over the album. The dark, orchestrally percussive “Middleman” features catchy, bluegrass-inspired guitar hooks and some incredibly groovy work by a sizeable percussion section. “No One Would Riot for Less” builds slowly from a simple accoustic guitar melody (which would sound right at home on any of Bright Eyes’ early albums) to a cathartic major turn accompanied by orchestral harmonies, organ, and lap steel guitar. The wonderfully-named “Soul Singer in the Session Band” features superb vocal and guitar work from bluesman M. Ward in support of Oberst’s lyrical, moaning voice.

Lyrically speaking, this album is paradoxically both one of the most self-referential and yet most socially aware Bright Eyes album to date. While most of the songs are couched in an autobiographical mood, Oberst finds time to take jabs at the political and social structures. And while I’m always skeptical of such commentary in music (it’s easy to do, but incredibly hard to do well), Oberst does manage it without too much melodrama or pretension. Admittedly, there are some cringe-worthy lines, but I can forgive a contrived reference to “democracy’s shackled hands” in light of the more subtle (“Get your revolution at a lower price”) and better developed (the social and religious jabs in “Four Winds”).

When one comes right down to it, the album is kind of a “one for the fans” affair. For all its new Country trappings, Bright Eyes is much the same as it’s always been: a group of talented musicians serving largely as a mouthpiece for frontman Conor Oberst. There are a lot of musical bits of stylistic nostalgia harkening back to previous albums (“Coat Check Dream Song” is syncopated and synth-y enough that it could easily have been a Digital Ash in a Digital Urn b-side) and many of Oberst’s favorite lyrical memes crop up throughout. As a result, if you like Bright Eyes, you’re probably going to dig Cassadaga. If, on the other hand, Conor Oberst and his troupe rub you the wrong way, then the occasional pretension and consistent self-reference will probably get old pretty quickly. That being said, this album is far more interesting from a strictly musical point of view than previous Bright Eyes releases. The scoring and song-writing is more complex and the resulting sound is rich and engaging, with the kind of depth that is likely to keep listeners coming back for more.

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