There are certain perks that come along with being branded an Important Artist. For one, you can count on a handful of designated rock-critic sycophants to christen everything you release as an instant masterpiece. You can ask veteran artists you regard as influences to sing backup for you. You have people actually listen to your political opinion even if you’re only twenty-three. You get Winona Ryder.
Heavy lies the crown however, if Important Artist in question is also Young Important Artist. For Young Important Artist is not only required to be talented, but also must speak for a generation. He must be angry, tender, slightly damaged. And he surrenders this youthful vigor at his own peril.
On Cassadaga, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst has committed the cardinal sin of growing up. There are already some grumblings of disappointment from “back in the day” fans that he’s lost his touch. But these sentiments are sorely displaced and largely irrelevant, because those fans will be quickly displaced. Cassadaga represents a next phase, one that will prove enduring even as the kids latch onto their next rock ‘n’ roll savior.
Oberst has said he wanted to experiment on Cassadaga, and the album opens with a one-sided conversation of psychic-psychobabble, neutered of any context, as a discordant string section weaves in and out, prompting concerns that we’re about to be subjected to Yankee Hotel Conor. Instead, what follows this jarring prologue is perhaps the least experimental, most traditional song cycle to unfold under the Bright Eyes moniker. The second track and first single, “Four Winds,” better sets the tone, with its fiddle and Dylan keyboards and lyrics of wandering spiritual journeys. There’s a dominant motif throughout that revolves around searching for psychic healing — the album itself is named after a Floridian spiritualist retreat. After years of visceral but ultimately surface-level musings, Oberst’s musical world is now deeper and vaster.
Some will bemoan the shift away from poetry and confessionals set to music, but what Bright Eyes presents here are songs — honest to goodness melodies and verses and hooks. And for the first time, Bright Eyes feels like an actual band, an intentional development with guitarist (and album’s producer) Mike Mogis and pianist Nate Walcott now woven permanently into the fabric of the music. Guests including M. Ward, Gillian Welch, Ben Kweller and Rachael Yamagata lend their talents as well. These are clearly Oberst’s songs, but Cassadaga sounds like more of a communal production, and whether or not this is a positive development serves as a Rorshach test for the Bright Eyes fan. These ears welcome the polished yet loose interplay among the trio and agree that it’s time to move past the frail and isolated enfant terrible persona. As a singer, Oberst has never sounded more refined and restrained, maintaining his passion without diving into the anguished, Gene Wilder-in-Young Frankenstein shrieks that made his vocals such an acquired taste in the past.
Lest the impression be given that this is all a more radical departure, much of what has made Bright Eyes such a heralded act for the last several years remains, best evidenced by the exemplary “I Must Belong Somewhere,” which distills a quintessential balance of poignant, evocative and political (“Leave the old town drunk on his wooden stool/ Leave the autumn leaves in their swimming pool/ Leave the poor black child in his crumbling school today”). Intentionally or not, the song also makes the statement that Bright Eyes and Oberst still belong in the conversation about Important Artists, even when they outgrow the term “young.”