In “Eagle On A Pole” Conor Oberst sings “I never could get used to happy sounds,” but his new self-titled album is actually plenty full of happy sounds. Take the brief clap-a-long march of “NYC – Gone, Gone.” With a title like that you wouldn’t be wrong to expect some sort of 9/11 ballad, but the rock ‘n’ roll Oberst delivers is anything but maudlin. It’s not that Conor Oberst is a laugh riot, but it definitely finds Mr. Bright Eyes and his Mystic Valley Band on a road trip and a rambling lyricism less in the realm of “When The President Talk To God” or his early days. Think “Four Winds”‘ swing without people dying or bodies decomposing tonight in abandoned buildings. Of course, he never entirely drops the political, but there isn’t the ham-fisted doctrinaire of the less-than-stellar Cassadaga. He recorded the dozen new tracks in Tepoztlán, Morelos, Mexico. The songs have a warmth to them. Something rural and dusty. The crickets in the late-night horn call of “Valle Mistico (Ruben’s Song).” The lemonade in standout opener “Cape Canaveral.” The desert and open sky in “Sausalito.” And, of course, “Moab,” even in name alone, but also its central “there’s nothing that the road cannot heal” hook.
The material isn’t new to the ears of Oberst fans. We all heard the unfortunately titled but well-played “Souled Out!!!” and the mellower, but rollicking “Danny Callahan” a little while ago and then the entire thing streamed. We even already knew what it looks like — Conor asleep in his hammock in his best cave. That could be another reason why it feels so natural, dusty, rambling. The rambling doesn’t always work: “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)” is pretty generic barroom blues riffing. But that’s minor cause for alarm.
Maybe Conor Oberst’s greatest attribute — or a quality of the album that exists because of its other attributes — is that it almost feels too short. It’s not. There are 12 songs and over 40 minutes of music. But when you come to the end of the somber, man-and-his-guitar of “Milk Thistle” — “you bring peace to midnight like a spotted owl” — it feels too soon. It also feels so quietly assured (“If somebody sweats you / you just point him out to me”). No need for histrionics or theatrics. No need to make some overwrought flourish or group sing-a-long.
It ends like Oberst’s career began, a guy alone in a room spitting into a microphone: A whisper with a weeping Lazarus, the unending parade of newspapers, one more cup of coffee before the day goes away, a repetition of the song’s main opening image: “If I go to heaven I’ll be bored as hell, like a crying baby at the bottom of a well.” Then a click, as the recorder shuts off. Heaven would be boring because as much shit as Oberst gets for being overly emotional and quavery, it’s in the fragile hell of the everyday that he’s found his best material (as far as the kid at the bottom of the well … remember the brother drowning in a bathtub in Fevers & Mirrors?). On CO he finds a balance between growing up/staying young, between his more mature storytelling and his younger heartache. Maybe it was time he dropped Bright Eyes as a name and was somehow reborn, an older and wiser version of the kid who released that last non-Bright Eyes Oberst album 13 years ago.
Conor Oberst is out 8/4 on Merge.