Is Conor Oberst indie rock’s answer to Ryan Adams? It certainly seems that way. After all, both men began as prodigiously talented youths, with personalities so volatile and expectations so lofty, it was difficult to imagine them doing anything but shining brightly for a few moments and then burning out for good. Much to everyone’s surprise– even their own, perhaps– both men have stayed with us much longer than expected and have even carved out relatively similar career arcs, Adams by leaving his band Whiskeytown and starting out on his own, Oberst by forming a band, although really, Bright Eyes has always been his show. And in the 2000s, few artists have been as prolific as Oberst and Adams– prolific, it must be said, to the point of fault, as both men seem to record and release any stray musical idea that comes into their heads, leading to a long string of uneven albums. And it’s not just that they’re both in need of an editor– they could also both stand to have their ego bumped down a few pegs. Adams’ albums, all of them deliberately classicist genre exercises, can’t help but feel show-offy, like he’s simply trying to wow us with how deep his record collection goes; as a result, there’s a Ryan Adams album that sounds like Gram Parsons, a Ryan Adams album that sounds like The Smiths, a Ryan Adams album that sounds like the Grateful Dead, but, with just one or two exceptions, not many Ryan Adams albums that sound like, well, Ryan Adams. Meanwhile in indiedom, Conor Oberst demonstrates a similar stylistic wanderlust, dabbling in everything from country-rock to electronica but never establishing any identity as an artist, save for his annoyingly wordy, clumsy lyrics and quavering, emo-friendly vocals.
Following this logic, Oberst’s latest, self-titled album might be seen as roughly analogous to Adams’ Easy Tiger. Both albums feel a bit like fresh starts– Adams dropped his three-albums-a-year pace and genre dabbling for a relatively lean, sleek set of country-rock tunes, while Oberst dropped his whole band and named the album after himself–but of the two, Conor Oberst is actually the more striking achievement. It’s hard to say whether it was dropping the Bright Eyes moniker or hopping the border for a series of low-key recording sessions in Mexico, or simply the passage of time and the gaining of experience, but, for whatever reason, Oberst finally sounds like he’s growing up and reaching beyond the pretensions of his Bright Eyes albums. Loose, modest, and surprisingly organic, Conor Oberst differs from any recent Bright Eyes albums in the sense that there’s no concept here, no grand ambitions– it’s simply a set of lively, lived-in songs, more reminiscent of the low-key singer-songwriter albums of the 1970s than the overwrought Cassadaga or the bumbling Digital Ashes in a Digital Urn.
But of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s a slight or a tossed-off album, even if it sometimes feels like one. For one thing, there’s definitely a theme here, if not a full-fledged conceptual thrust; befitting a man known for frequent and sudden bouts of wanderlust, Oberst has made his self-titled album a monument to escapism, a collection of meditations on the road as a savior, on the yearning desire to simply up and run. This is a familiar theme to anyone who listens to country music, of course, but Oberst explores it here with a surprising sophistication; these songs hang together as a piece, from the weariness of “Lenders in the Temple”– a resigned lament about consumerism and greed and the desire to escape it– to the life-on-the-road snippets “Sausalito” and “Danny Callahan.” The album even begins with an ode to the shuttles lifting off at Cape Canaveral– a grand gesture of escapism that casts a shadow over the rest of the proceedings.
But what really makes it all work is that, for the first time, Oberst displays a sense of craft. The album picks up with the dusty, country-rock feel of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, but where that album simply revealed that Oberst listens to a lot of Gram Parsons and Tom Petty, this album shows us that he’s actually absorbed something from those masters. He’s learned a thing or two about the genre he’s working in– namely, that it works best when it feels unforced– and this album is delightfully breezy and loose, not nearly as meticulously orchestrated or carefully planned as his Bright Eyes albums. Never before has Oberst cut a song as effortless and organic– or as enjoyable– as the sprightly country two-step of “Sausalito,” or the driving barroom anthem “I Don’t Want to Die (In a Hospital),” songs that reveal Oberst’s country-rock fixation to be lived-in and complex, not just a cheap imitation. And he’s learned a lot about poetry, as well– yes, he still uses some clumsy words and tries to cram too many ideas into a single song, but his sense of pacing has improved dramatically, and here is actually sounds like he knows something about meter. The lyrics are still a little awkward sometimes, but they at least exhibit some sense of craft.
And that’s ultimately what makes this the finest album Conor Oberst has yet made. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s most definitely a step in the right direction, because it gives us a glimpse into Oberst the artist, not just Oberst the poseur.
Josh Hurst, The Hurst Review