Bright Eyes’ latest a generational benchmark

Adam Griffiths

Conor Oberst’s evolution, reflection on ‘Cassadaga’

I was discussing the possibility of the next great American album with a fellow reporter, and she made a comment I think accurately reflects the current thinking as to expectation of the next defining record of a generation, a society and a country.

“It takes a lot to give someone that credential. Bright Eyes isn’t going to do it, nor is any other emo or pop-rock act because none of them are original enough. Until there is someone who can break across all genres, yet still hold true to their roots, there isn’t going to be a great American singer.”

Bright Eyes


Released on Saddle Creek Records

Stater rating (out of five): ????1/2

Despite this valid protest, Bright Eyes’ latest, Cassadaga, is the closest candidate to come along in the past decade.

As winding as the most unreachable of back roads, nostalgic as the feeling of simultaneously going and coming back and solid as a country seemingly more divided than unified as years take their toll, the album has unprecedented lyrical prowess and arrangement that easily shines as the group’s best yet.

That’s saying a lot for a group that’s had such a schizophrenic musical history. After the drawn-out first minutes of “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed),” the album’s first track, the scattered – at times whiney – warbling of front man Conor Oberst are left far behind.

Clairaudience is the supposed power to hear things outside the range of normal perception, and this first track has it. It’s a six-minute preview of the rest of the album – war, religion and government, but with the introspection and criticism, both self and otherwise, that has made Bright Eyes the go-to band for a true picture of the country today.

There’s a wide range of realities that sting close to home. “There’s people always dying trying to keep them alive,” as Oberst claims on “Four Winds.” “Every reassurance just magnifies the doubt,” on “If The Brakeman Turns My Way.” “Life is too short / Death doesn’t ask / It don’t owe you that,” on “Make a Plan to Love Me.” “There will never be a time more opportune,” he charges on “Lime Tree.”

But the raw and honest lyrics we see aren’t surprising. The production is what drives Cassadaga into its eternal sunset. Oberst screams no more. With female vocals and a very strong strings presence on a good portion of the album, and particular surprises like the electric piano and vibraphone on “Coat Check Dream Song,” there’s enough musical variety to support the diverse landscape the album paints.

The hard piano and guitar that supports the commentary on adultery on “Hot Knives.” The all-American, organ-wielding western flair that support the “Soul Singer in a Session Band” in the middle of a mid-life crisis. An Eastern-influenced explanation of contemporary, but requisite “Middleman.” All these shades blend together and form a mirror where it’s easy to see nothing less than an organic national anthem.

What it comes down to is a question of who we are. Some will call Cassadaga overconfident. Others will call it too reserved for what it sets out to accomplish. I’m sure a few will call it morally self-serving. But think about the country it represents. Overconfident? Resolved, but ineffective? Morally self-serving? Turn on CNN or FOX for the latest breaking parallels.

“Lime Tree,” the last track on the album, is the opposite of the secularly comprehensive lead “Clairaudients.” Oberst tells us to “consider ourselves lucky if” we think of “the Known and Unknown” as home. He feels “nauseous with the truth” – a sensation often inspired by more than this line in the dwindling moments on Cassadaga.

And just as intimate and in the shadow of reality as the album starts, it fizzles out abruptly with what may be the closest thing to address the post-post-modern attitude of a readily evaporating generation.

“I took off my shoes and walked into the woods.”

“I felt lost and found with every step I took.”

Contact ALL reporter Adam Griffiths at [email protected].