If there is such a thing as a “critical consensus” – and I usually doubt that there is, but entertain me for a minute here – then it has a fascinatingly revisionist take on history sometimes. When an artist goes off in a direction that the consensus seems to have a problem with, it can often devalue that artist’s previous work in the canon that was once championed and embraced.
This weird dynamic is playing itself out in the reaction to Bright Eyes’ new album Cassadaga, as many reviewers are using their dislike of the album to retroactively condemn its literal and spiritual successor, 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, while also elevating the status of the band’s 2002 album Lifted. In particular, criticism hasn’t been kind to the increasingly political direction that Connor Oberst’s lyrics have taken as Oberst himself has embraced a political role in his public life (he was a key part of the Vote for Change tour that tried to raise money to oppose the Bush administration in the 2004 elections, along with longtime political musicians like R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen).
This revisionism, my friends, is ridiculous. Bright Eyes was not better when Oberst’s words were almost exclusively introspective; it just made him sound whiny. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, on the other hand,stands as one of the biggest surprises of the decade, a timeless folk album that is one of the most effortless blends of the personal the political that I’ve come across in recent times. It was no less indulgent than the band’s previous work – Oberst’s strained delivery really can’t be anything less than ridiculously melodramatic – but in completely embracing the band’s roots influences, the record had an authenticity that wholly justified its excesses.
I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning was released simultaneously with a more experimental, electronic-influenced Bright Eyes album called Digital Ash in a Digital Urn that was nowhere near as accomplished as its counterpart. With two possible directions to take Cassadaga, the band’s sixth full-length album, Bright Eyes has elected to go further down the alt-country road (alt-country, of course, means “country that doesn’t make indie/alterative rock kids feel guilty for listening”). While I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning could be considered more a folk album than country, Cassadaga wears its twangy heart on its sleeve, with almost every note buttressed with acoustics, strings, fiddles and organs. For all those cries of “the new Dylan” that Oberst has had to put up with over the years, it seems that he ended up as “the new Band” somewhere along the way.
The polish is a mixed blessing, though. When it works, it works stunningly: the string riff that anchors “Four Winds” will be stuck in your head for days, not to mention the driving chorus of “If the Brakeman Turns My Way” and pretty much the entirety of “Classic Cars,” a reflective lament about a relationship with an older woman. But the album hits a huge rut near its conclusion and overstays its welcome. With only one song under four minutes and a running time over well over an hour, there’s only so much shiny twang that one’s ears can take before it all runs together, and the album’s last four or five songs end up forgotten in the grand scheme of things. As such, it’s the tracks that sound somewhat different from the rest than end up making the biggest impact: the distortion-driven “Hot Knives” and the wonderfully understated “Middleman” being the best examples.
It’s perhaps a testament to how much more prominent the song arrangements are on Cassadaga that I’m talking so much about them before I even mention Oberst’s lyrics. After all, lyrics have always been the entrypoint into any and all discussions of Bright Eyes, be they of his earlier introspective phase or his newfound outward-looking political vision. Oberst’s critics have always used his words against him regardless of their content, and Cassadaga’s lyrics are no different; one prominent review of the album referred to them as “self-excluding left-wing boilerplate.”
We live in interesting times, you know. On the one hand, everyone laments and cries out that despite the dark, distressing days in which we live, nobody is making great protest music anymore, not like they did back in the 1960s and 1970s. But at the same time, anyone who tries is criticized for being a soulless sloganeer. It’s a double-edged front: the baby boomers continue to champion their own imagined culture over ours, neglecting that their own protest music was equally ham-handed and blunt, while the post-modern hipsters are too cool and caught up in a black hole of non-belief to embrace something so completely earnest. Conner Oberst gets stuck in the middle.
I don’t mean to sound as if I’m a champion of political music. At its worst, it ends up in the same ballpark as the most ear-numbing Christian or religious music, wholly lacking in perspective and entirely designed for choir-preaching. But Oberst knows the game he’s playing: that unless he can engage the listener on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one, then the lyrics become nothing more than talking points, and who in their right mind wants to sit through 60 minutes of those?
That Oberst doesn’t quite play this game as well as he did on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning is a little disappointing, but people seem so caught up in the idea of Cassadaga as a “political” album that they miss that Oberst isn’t that far off the mark. Perhaps people are dismissing the album’s lyrics because he has replaced a lot of the personal introspection with imagery and storytelling. “Soul Singer in a Session Band” come across as a twisted, raucous version of “Piano Man” (yes, I actually mean that as a compliment…somehow), with imaginary post-modern authors and paths of breadcrumbs. And then there’s the beautiful parade of leave-behinds that colour “I Must Belong Somewhere” (one of the few highlights on the album’s back end).
When Oberst does get explicitly political, there’s a critical distance that prevents his work from being labeled as sloganeeringmost of the time. Take, for example, the opener “Clairaudients,” which is far less a championing of revolutionism than a look at its failings and corruptions. Sometimes it does get a bit much – the war imagery of “No One Would Riot for Less” feels obvious and uninspired – but by and large the album never feels like Oberst is trying to convert us to the cause: he just wants to sing about it.
Sadly, as enjoyable as the album is, there’s nothing on here as lyrically enigmatic as “At the Very Bottom of Everything” or as spectacular as “Land Locked Blues.” Cassadaga is an accomplished peace of modern Americana but it lacks the focus and, ultimately, the heart of its predecessor. But it does feature some of the coolest album artwork I’ve ever seen, pictures hidden under a grey scramble that only the included secret decoder mirror can uncover. Perhaps that’s the trick: once you filter through some of the album’s forgettable clutter, there’s great treasure to be found.
Watch: Bright Eyes – “Four Winds”