For the first time since he was 15, when he started recording as Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has released an album under his given name. The switch has caused people to search for a seismic shift in the music, but it's just not there. Oberst has chalked up the alternate title to a very practical development: Mike Mogis, the multi-instrumentalist, producer, and, along with composter/keyboardist Nate Walcott, the only other permanent member of Bright Eyes, had no hand in this one. Hence, solo.
The results are decidedly restrained. Oberst is a prolific and abundantly talented songwriter, and to say these feel like songs he could have written in his sleep is in no way meant as a criticism. Trap the young man in a bare room with a guitar and a tape recorder for a week and chances are you wouldn't be disappointed with the results. Which isn't a vast departure from the process of this album: Oberst and a gaggle of buds, collectively known as the Mystic Valley Band, set up shop in a small villa in Cuernavaca, Mexico, recording as the will came.
The result is a confident, tight batch of tracks that beautifully encompass a prosaic kind of ache. The wistful opening track, "Cape Canaveral" -- a delicately picked guitar and Oberst's yearning voice -- nails the album's underlining quiet determination. "You taught me victory's sweet even deep in the cheap seats," Oberst unemotionally declares. "Danny Callahan," the sort-of true tale of a young cancer patient, suggests that vague helplessness that comes from being witness to other people's tragedies. "Milk Thistle," gorgeous and fragile, is a nod to a daily, shoulder shrug bravery: "I'm not scared of nothing/ I'll go pound for pound/ I keep death on my mind like a heavy crown."
The post-Lifted... meme was the clumsy parallel of Oberst as Young Dylan, and a cautiously optimistic press horde waited to see what the kid would do with the expectations. He flirted with a tipping point: the dual release of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, the Tonight Show performance of "When the President Talks to God." But there was no grand swipe at a masterpiece. Perhaps Oberst still has designs on a statement album, and is tiding us over with works like these -- full of eyes-wide-open melancholia and casual, reckless optimism. If that's so, we couldn't care less if that statement album ever comes.
Who knows why exactly Conor Oberst has decided to release this album under his own name. He's always been the main driving force behind Bright Eyes, his more rockist side project Desaparecidos, and other groups he was in before he was famous as an indie-emo poster boy. So why this particular album is any more of a "solo album" is anyone's guess. Oberst recorded it in Mexico with a backing entourage that named itself the Mystic Valley Band, which featured musicians who have accompanied Oberst in Bright Eyes. Wanderlust is all over the album; the first two songs, "Cape Canaveral" and "Sausalito" span the length of the continental U.S., and on "Moab" Oberst claims, "There's nothing that the road can't heal." Dylan, Petty, and the rest of the Traveling Wilburys would find much to like here. This is Oberst's first album under his own name since 1995's Soundtrack to my Movie.