Although the past month-and-a-half has been full of decent music releases, I still find myself extremely cautious when it comes to purchasing a new CD - especially when it's a musician/band that I've never heard before. Even those that seem popular (Fall Out Boy's Infinity on High), or those you think you would like (Grindhouse: Planet Terror/Death Proof soundtracks) can be very disappointing. So, I often try to discover new music and do a lot of searching for musicians who I haven't heard before. From my latest search, I heard about Nebraska's own Conor Oberst and his band Bright Eyes, and their new release, Cassadaga. Regardless that this album had received mostly good reviews, I remained objectively cautious and did as much researching as possible before I decided to give them a try.
I had read all the comparisons of Oberst to Bob Dylan and comments on how inventive Oberst is with his music and lyrics. So, with that, I decided to lay down the $10 and pop Cassadaga into my CD player. Before even listening, one can't help but notice the alubm cover which there's more to than you think. Inside the sleeve there's a "spectral decoder" (like something you might find in a Cracker Jack box) which is already laid over a part of the sleeve where you can read "These myths are sacred and profane!" Interesting. I took out the decoder and moved it around the entire album cover and inside sleeves, seeing pictures and various odd quotes which I thought was a really cool concept and wondered why no other artist's had done this before.
The first track, "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" starts off with a weird voiceover/recording of a woman prattling on about traveling to Cassadaga, Florida, played over music one might hear in a horror movie. Two minutes and twenty seconds into the song, Oberst bursts in with his lyrics, sounding more like a Leonard Cohen song than one of Dylan's ilk. Right away I can spot Oberst's talent with songwriting, however, "Clairaudients" so far is my least favorite track on the album, which is tricky to start off an album with such a mediocre beginning. I like Leonard Cohen and Oberst's vocals, but the woman's recording is simply too much of a distraction from the actual music. After an outro of more of the weird woman's recording, the second song "Four Winds" begins with a heavy violin, mandolin and guitars. Most people who review this song say it has a heavy country influence to it. I disagree. This song is all Irish folk/pop (think The Pogues) with the singer making references to religion and a lyric ("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") that makes the listener know that Oberst means business when it comes to songwriting and getting his point across.
Next, my favorite track, "If the Brakeman Turns My Way," is when we start to hear the heavy Dylan-like music. But this isn't your 60's folk-y Dylan. This is Dylan in the '80s - but with lyrics that are just as morally significant and poetic. I especially like the lyrics "Got a cricket for a conscience always looks the other way" and "I never thought of running/My feet just led the way." It's a song that talks in a roundabout way about faith (I wonder if the "Brakeman" is Oberst's other name for God) and finding a way to be comfortable with yourself and life. And Bright Eyes sets the tone for the album with this one. Track four is "Hot Knives," which is slightly harder in music and in lyrics, but still has that sound of Irish folk bordering on rebel music, but with strings too. The singer starts off singing from the point-of-view of a wife confronting her husband's mistress and then goes on a spiritual journey to start anew.
"Make a Plan to Love Me" has been described as a song with orchestra that sounds as if it could be played at some 1950s high school dance and that is a great way to put it. With female backup singers (among them the beautiful, talented Rachael Yamagata, who not only has put out a few of her own albums, but has also sang backup for the likes of Ryan Adams, Jason Mraz, Rhett Miller and Ray LaMontagne) that sound like 50's groups The Teddy Bears ("To Know Him is to Love Him") and The Paris Sisters ("I Love How You Love Me"), Bright Eyes sings of a desperate man who pleads with and asks the woman he loves to at least try and love him. While this song may come off creepy to some, the lyrics reveal that this man has a reason to be taking the approach he does as the object of his affection "first want(s) to ride off into the Sun/Then you want to shoot straight to the Moon." Again, this song is different from its predecessors and it's nice to hear an album made up of extreme eclecticism. The next song, "Soul Singer in a Session Band," brings back the heavy Dylan-like sound, but this time sounding like mid- to late-70's Dylan (when he was with The Band) with some undertones of honky-tonk piano thrown in. The title explains the absurdity of such a talented singer singing backup in a minor band and that's how the Oberst feels as he belts out lyrics like "I was a hopeless romantic, now I'm just turning tricks." He feels lost and this is his poetic response to his station in life.
"Classic Cars" is probably my second favorite on the album and features Gillian Welch on backup vocals, sounding 90% folk/pop and 10% country. "Cars" speaks of a woman who the singer once had a fling with but the relationship ended. As the song comes to a close, the singer gives us a glimpse into the downfall of the relationship as he advises to "never trust a heart that is so bent it can't break." This is a track that has to be heard to be appreciated and my only complaint is that the song isn't long enough. The eighth song is "Middleman," with a sound mix of Tim Buckley and Ryan Adams, and featuring woodwinds with a single violin throughout that comes off sounding like bluegrass folk but not your stereotypical bluegrass.
The woodwinds continue (and feature much more prominently) on "Cleanse Song" with Oberst working his acoustic guitar to poetic lyrics dealing with life and how all of its sorrows will pass. It's a jumpy song and the shortest on the album at about three-and-a-half minutes. "No One Would Riot for Less" is a silent, slow song of apocalyptic proportions with lyrics like "So love me now/Hell is coming/Kiss my mouth/Hell is here." It's got a dark feel to it and isn't as noticeable a song as the rest on the album, even though at a little over five minutes, you can tell Oberst wants it to be noticed. This continues on to "Coat Check Dream Song" with slide guitar and ending with weird Hindu chanting. I give Oberst bonus points for working in The Hague into a song as well as very well-done poetic descriptions, but it still makes this song easy to forget.
Luckily, Bright Eyes romps us back into motion with "I Must Belong Somewhere." With heavy organ and mandolin, "Somewhere" is a knee-jumping limerick ode to Oberst finally beginning to realize where he belongs. It changes from the dark tones of "No One" to a hopeful, new beginning, and, by this point, I'm only happy to smile along with Oberst as he chooses to stay in the place he's grown to love. The last track, "Lime Tree," returns the tempo to slow (although, not dark) but continues the message of Oberst finally taking that first step toward his happiness in a place he chooses to be. Of course, he references with deeply profound metaphor, singing, "Everything gets smaller now the further that I go/Towards the mouth and the reunion of the Known and the Unknown/Consider yourself lucky if you think of it as home/You can move mountains with your misery if you don't." He even ends the song abruptly with a lyric one might imagine Henry David Thoreau singing: "I took off my shoes and walked into the woods/I felt lost and found with every step I took."
Cassadaga certainly is a road trip of the soul for Oberst. Luckily, he takes unabashedly brings us along for the ride. And like any road trips when you were young (and not so aware of the world), it takes a while for the true meaning of the experience to sink in. That's how I feel about Bright Eyes' Cassadaga. The only thing you should be sure about before purchasing this album is that it's not a rock album, it's not your David Gray-sounding album, and it's definitely not a pop album. It's a genre that's so hard to put into words because it mixes a bit of every instrument and voice. Oberst can sound like Cohen first, then transition into a bit of John Lennon or Dougie MacLean before going into Dylan. Oberst proves that he's a true musician and dips his feet in all kinds of genres. I like it, though. It's nice and refreshing and something I definitely want to pop in my CD player while on my long commutes to work.