After experiencing his own `dark night of the soul' Conor Oberst went through a period of introspection and transition. Cassadaga is a result of this process, and the album clearly has a spiritual dimension.
It opens with the voice of a clairvoyant advising the inquirer to spend some time in Cassadaga, a small town in Florida, inhabited by an unusual high percentage of psychics. This opening has been characterized by many as New Age nonsense, but is in fact essential, as it opens a window on the album's landscape: "Casadaga may be just a premonition of a place that you're going to visit..." Oberst uses the name as a metaphor for a process of growing awareness. Key words are: journey, transformation, change, new era. He explores this mystic world with healthy scepticism, but also with empathy and sincere interest. One must separate the wheat from the chaff, but at the same time be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water! Cassadaga is full of references to spiritual matters. You can look upon the album as it being merely a collection of beautiful popsongs, but in a broader perspective they form a unity and a concept, and they can be seen as reflections of a process of liberation and self-realization.
Our world is a grim place: "It's kill or be killed!" Conor Oberst paints a world of shallow erntertainment and blind fundamentalism, a world full of `Peter Pan's. Many sell their souls (Soul Singer), sacrifice love to greed (Make a Plan to Love Me), or choose an existence of grey mediocrity (Middleman). Classic Cars tells of lost love, and Coat Check Dream Song shows the twisted mind of the terrorist. The skyscrapers on Manhattan, the financial heart and soul of western civilisation, are `the new pyramids', symbols of an Empire which ended on 9/11 (Cleanse Song). Death hides in many and unexpected corners, and we'd better not waste our precious time (No One Would Riot For Less). "The Bible is blind, the Torah is deaf, the Qur'an is mute, if you burned them all together you'd get close to the truth" is another pregnant statement. Institutionalized religions offer no solutions anymore, we must start from scratch and find our own truth. The brilliant Four Winds leans on one of the most beautiful poems of W.B.Yeats - The Second Coming - with one big difference: Yeats talks about the rise of the evil and destructive powers which threatened the world in the first half of the last century, while Conor Oberst refers to the powers of Good, which will gain space to manifest themselves where Evil has collapsed. Yeats's `gyre' of history has reached it's widest stretch and will collapse, the centre cannot hold any longer: "And when Great Satan's gone... the Whore of Babylon... she just can't remain with all that outer space, she breaks... she caves." Opposites are a theme in the album, and by reversing the meaning of Yeats's poem Oberst creates a new balance, and in doing so he promotes an optimistic view of life in spite of all evil in our current world. "Awake, Baby awake, but leave that blanket around you, there's nowhere as safe..." The message is clear: wake up, but keep going inward (the blanket imo being a metaphor for meditation), stay with your Self, that's the only safe place! The solution to all our problems lies within us, and our ultimate task is finding unconditional love and compassion within ourselves. Only then the history of this planet will turn for the better. The message is not new, it is spread by all great religions and gnosticism, but religions are frozen solid in dogma's and inconsistent behaviour, and do not appeal to most people any longer. It's up to us now!
In I Must Belong Somewhere Oberst speaks of accepting the world as it ís; in this world everything has it's place, and we should no longer resist to whatever we cannot change, because our resistance causes our negative attitude. Our meddling is pure arrogance, for: "... the world requires no audience, no witnesses..." We must surrender to The Greater Scheme, the continuous evolution of the universe, a process which is beyond our comprehension. It means living in the here and now, fully aware, and with a compassionate heart. This submission to the Infinite (or Divine for religious believers) Plan obviously originates from buddhism, but is also elemental in, and in fact connects, all main religious philosophies. Insight and submission (enlightenment) are hindered by our daily worries and problems, our cravings and our denial (Lime Tree). Oberst has seen glimpses of liberation, knows that all ado grows smaller the more one enters the Unknown (which is in fact the Known, as this cosmic knowledge lies buried in all of us, we only have to rediscover it). Submission takes place, there is distancing from those who are `pleased with a daydream', and surrender to the Unknown, as is illustrated by the last lines of the album: "I took off my shoes and walked into the woods, I felt lost and found with every step I took."
Oberst' lyrics take my breath away. And the music offers a perfect bedding for those lyrics, as is shown right from the beginning where the voice is surrounded by a swirling vortex of sounds which draws you within. The rising and fading sounds seem a reference to the elemental movements of every particle in our universe: expanding and shrinking, arising and passing away. It is the endless movement Yeats refers to with his `gyres', and Oberst with `as the spiral unwinds.' Circles and cycles often appear in the lyrics, like opposites they are spiritual symbols. Multi-layered lyrics combined with a strong, attractive and supporting production create an artistic unity that is exceptional in the least, especially considering the singer's young age.
In an interview with a Dutch magazine Conor Oberst remarks: "The album is neither about a quest nor about the town of Cassadaga. I like to think Cassadaga reflects the feeling I experienced when returning from there: authenticity, peace of mind. Ever since I was there I feel I no longer carry any suffering with me." Isn't that what we all would wish: peace of mind and liberation from suffering? It is what buddhists call enlightenment - if it is permanent - and temporary glimpses may be a big step towards this enviable state. Oberst also says: "I would like to see my songs interpreted in a million different ways. Then the magic of music stays intact." I agree with him there. Observing the album from a spiritual view is just one way of interpreting it. But even the packaging of the CD seems to indicate we should put on different glasses and look for the invisible: the textbook shows a grey cover, apart from a few twisting lines. But when you place the enclosed focal decoder on the cover it turns out a world is hidden behind the grey! Cassadaga, and all its implications, only becomes visible through different eyes. I don't think Conor Oberst would ever do anything at random in his work. I think every detail has its meaning!
Cassadaga is an awe-inspiring album. With every spin it reveals more of its richness, and Oberst has firmly placed himself among the few Gods who reign from the top of my musical Olympus. After the equally monumental Lifted - Or the Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear To the Ground, his much more accessible I'm Wide Awake It's Morning was a slight disappointment to me, even though that album certainly exceeds the average. I hope his future work will continue to be of the same outstanding quality as Lifted -... and Cassadaga.