BRIGHT EYES: CASSADAGA (2007)
1) Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed); 2) Four Winds; 3) If The Brakeman Turns My Way; 4) Hot Knives; 5) Make A Plan To Love Me; 6) Soul Singer In A Session Band; 7) Classic Cars; 8) Middleman; 9) Cleanse Song; 10) No One Would Riot For Less; 11) Coat Check Dream Song; 12) I Must Belong Somewhere; 13) Lime Tree.
Since I have pretty much exhausted my share of pejoratives to address the work of Conor Oberst, I will try to simply stick to the facts from now on. Cassadaga was released on April 10, 2007, on the Saddle Creek label. It has thirteen tracks, clocking in at slightly over 62 minutes. Mike Mogis produced the sessions, which altogether included over thirty different musicians — an absolute record for Bright Eyes, who would later return to a much smaller scale. The «real» album art was hidden from view, so that you could only see all the hidden messages (including a poorly done machine-version Russian translation of the phrase «draw another bloody bath») with the accompanying «Spectral Decoder».
Sales were modest; critical acclaim — near universal, with the arguable exception of a lukewarm response from Pitchfork. Also, according to Wikipedia, Johnny Depp named Cassadaga one of his favorite things in 2007. Also, in 2007, Johnny Depp starred in Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End. So far, modern science has not conclusively disproven the lack of a logical connection between these two events, which, to a tiny degree, somewhat justifies my mentioning them in the same paragraph. And — just in case — be warned.
From top to bottom, Cassadaga consists of more or less traditionally-oriented songs: with the exception of some atmospheric intros and outros that involve electronics, noises, and spoken vocals, most of it can be defined as relatively straightforward country-rock, usually with complex, multi-layered arrangements, with an acoustic guitar part at the core and from two to three to thirty extra musicians on top. This makes Cassadaga into the most accessible (for general audiences) album Oberst had released up to that date (not counting the Christmas record) — without electronics, lengthy solo acoustic confessionals, and with a much more restrained, balanced, some would say «mature» approach to singing, Cassadaga could easily be enjoyed by the grandfather and grandson alike; a true piece of «family entertainment» if there ever was one — and I do insist that I am still sticking to the facts, for now.
In terms of melodies, we do not usually expect a lot of invention or originality from roots-rock albums that honor the old traditions, and expect them twice less if the creative force behind the roots-rock album is Conor Oberst. I did not get the impression of hearing even one melody that was not already familiar from somewhere, and there are quite straightforward reminiscences every now and then (ʽFour Windsʼ draws upon ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ, and ʽMiddlemanʼ recognizably reinvents ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ, to quote just two examples). As far as arrangements are concerned, they manage to keep some diversity by staying away from the «wall of sound» conception — despite all the layers, each song is usually defined by just one instrumental type: fiddle on ʽFour Windsʼ, organ and piano on ʽIf The Brakeman Turns My Wayʼ, strings on ʽMake A Plan To Love Meʼ, woodwinds on ʽCleanse Songʼ, etc.
The lyrical journey of Oberst continues unimpeded as his words start making even less literal sense, and his allusions start getting more and more obscure, sometimes to the point where it does not seem like there are any allusions. Conor himself proclaimed that he did not want to include any «political» songs on the record, but not only that, very few of them — if any, in fact — deal with the old subject of «the end of the world through the eyes of a recently dumped loser». In their place, we have a solidified, nearly-finalized prophetic vision, perhaps best summarized in ʽFour Windsʼ: "And it's the sum of man, slouching towards Bethlehem / A heart just can't contain all of that empty space / It breaks, it breaks, it breaks".
It could be argued, in fact, that at this point Oberst's primary source of influence is The Band — and their «intellectualized» brand of roots-rock, pumping new wine into the old winebag. (Which, of course, begs for the question — exactly how many times can you fill an old winebag with new wine before it starts leaking on your boots? — but let's not forget about sticking to the facts). The big difference is that the spirit of The Band was more in line with the old folk idea of humble recognition of and submission to one's fate, whereas Oberst — on record, at least — is still a rebel, and, of course, nobody in The Band would ever think of «offending» the Bible, and a song title like ʽI Must Belong Somewhereʼ is decidedly not «Bandish».
(For the record, I personally take significant offense not at the line "the Bible is blind, the Torah's deaf, the Qur'an is mute / If you burned them all together you'd be closer to the truth", but rather at the follow-up: "They're poring over Sanskrit under Ivy League moons while shadows lengthen in the sun". Really, Conor — empty ignorant hacks at abstract «bookishness» are so passé. Write me a letter if you are truly interested in how to poke fun at certain genuinely detrimental scientific practices of the day. Even better still, just write something nasty about Lady Gaga instead. Okay, back to the facts, the facts, the facts).
Actually, I have no more facts that would be useful for this here review, so let us just close it with a final flourish of completely subjective opinion, worthless from anybody else's perspective: I met exactly one song on this album that did not sound deadly boring. That was ʽMake A Plan To Love Meʼ, and I ascribe its success almost completely to the exquisitely arranged vocal harmonies of Stacy and Sherrie DuPree from the Texan band Eisley. As for everything else — I'd just as soon listen to Garth Brooks. Mush is mush, no matter if it consists of three or thirty-three layers, and Cassadaga is mush supreme — but yes, it probably must take some talent to get thirty professional musicians to play on an album that does not leave even a passing impression. Final judgement? Why don't we all just share my thumbs down and go put on some Animals instead. Heck, I could even go for some Woody Guthrie — even though that guy never got thirty people to play on any of his records.
Check "Cassadaga" (MP3) on Amazon