For anyone who vastly prefers Bright Eyes’ stripped-down material to the overwrought moaning and emoting at the other end of the spectrum, Conor Oberst’s first non-Bright Eyes album will come as a long-awaited treat. Albeit crafted with what’s often a full band, the self-titled outing is all quivering, almost-dainty instrumentation topped with casually sung and slyly thoughtful lyrics. Under the auspices of the Mystic Valley Band, Oberst’s pals here are culled from the rosters of his Saddle Creek and Team Love labels.
Sparer arrangements have always let Oberst the lyricist breathe, and on the hushed opener “Cape Canaveral,” his wordplay is as natural as a babbling brook: “You taught me victory is sweet/Even deep in the cheap seats.” “Sausalito” then skips along to a happy country lilt, and “Get Well Cards” may just live up to all those Dylan comparisons. “Moab,” meanwhile, is a sweet hat-tip to Tom Petty, and “Lenders in the Temple” scans the underbelly of American culture, from pink flamingos to infomercials to drunk dialing.
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Recorded in a part of Mexico rich in Aztec history, the album is split between sharp character studies (“Danny Callahan”) and such urgent yet lighthearted numbers as “NYC—Gone, Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Die (In a Hospital).” Things gets especially loose and joke-y toward the end, between the 50-second “Valle Mistico (Ruben’s Song)” and “Souled Out!!!”—about not being able to get into heaven. Closer “Milk Thistle” picks up that thread and leaves us with an indelible final line: “If I go to heaven, I’ll be bored as hell/Like a crying baby at the bottom of a well.” There and elsewhere, Oberst employs breezy ironies and a timeless thread of feelings worthy of the very best country songs.