The other day, my very sensitive five-year-old trotted into my office with one side of her overgrown pixie bob haircut hanging over one eye, saying "Look Alex (my kid calls me Alex) I'm emo." I trust this is at her mom's prompting, unless her teacher has an Appleseed Cast sticker on the window of her Honda Civic. I started chanting "you are e-mo, you are e-mo... as I am wont to do when I see actual grown up emo kids flopping around, begging me to notice their haircuts. She ran off in tears, breaking my heart like the actual emo kids do as well. I trotted my bullying ass into the living room to hear her address the court by saying "Alex hurt my feelings by saying I'm emo a bunch of times" and I immediately thought "Exactly my point! She wouldn't be crying like that if she wasn't really emo" but I thought better of voicing it. And like in any debate with children, or Goths, or the insane or the enraged, you absolutely will never win. They feel it more than you do. You may have the facts on your side, but they have soul power as a counterattack. So as much as I want to mock the youth, I must ultimately concede that they always win.
I feel the same way about Bright Eyes. Conor Oberst's deer-in-the-headlights nervousness and spiral-bound poetic ambition is such an easy target. He's all but begging to use your bathroom so he can slit his wrist and dirty up all your towels, in case you fail to notice the full roll of toilet paper sopping up his wound when he exits. They saving grace is, he's rather brilliant, and his muse can back up his adolescent warble, bearing the weight of his smarty-pants references and ornament of his arrangements. I don't even like most of his records, because they are not for me, but I kinda love them for what they do. The little fucker cares about a goddamn song with all his heart. They just all felt too young for me, but at the ripe age of 27, where all the world's secrets reveal their reptilian coldness to a man, he's created his first truly mature record. Cassadaga is a great record.
Much like his heart in past releases, he wears his influences on his sleeve on this one. During the finest song "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" he says "tried to listen to The River, but you couldn't shut your mouth" at one point, but updates the blabbermouth genius the Boss did on that very album. Oberst's voice still has some shake to it, but he's largely given up swallowing his words, and pitching that against a smooth miasma of slide guitars and Big Pink inspired keyboards it is brilliant. Methinks he got a copy of Bob Dylan's Desire and left it in his car stereo for a stretch, because the similarities are indisputable on "Hot Knives" and "Soul Singer in a Session Band." Fortunately, he breaks from his Dylan act with nocturnal numbers like "Make a Plan to Love me" which sounds all the world like the finest song Vic Chestnutt never recorded, its Nelson Riddle grade orchestration silky and soft enough to be in a Disney movie.
"Middleman" is a real standout. The guitar picking at the beginning recalls the Doobie Brothers "Black Water", an inclination which is not helped by the haunting fiddle lines that creep in behind it. It keeps that back woods noir luster going throughout it, spooky enough that the interwoven spoken track causes you to look over your shoulder. This is the first album I've wanted to hear in SurroundSound, so I could see what its like to sit in the haunted apartment of Conor Oberst's soul.
On his other albums, I thought the songs usually collapsed under their own weight, but on "Cleanse Song" you get a sense that he's gotten the memo. It's still intricate enough for him to require an oboist to be kept on retainer, but he's painting with a subtler brush nowadays. The finest example of this is the hushed rush of "No One Would Riot for Less." The music is as subtle as that Gordon Jenkins did for Sinatra's September of My Years. OK maybe not that good, considering September is the best-crafted album ever, but its pretty damn good to at least bear comparisons. For the first time in his career, I find myself floating away in his songs, and my feet have yet to really leave the ground so far this year.
"Coat Check Dream Song" is the only point where I think he's gone overboard, with the bongos and whatnot. I blame Ryan Adams for it. Not that he had anything to do with the song, but he laid the groundwork for this. Fortunately, "I Must Belong Somewhere" is a rustic urban fake cowboy lilting number that illustrates precisely what Adams used to be able to do - get his Gram on without drowning the song. "Lime Tree" closes this thing out with a whisper, building up to a crescendo so schmaltzy that it feels like I just shot up in a hidden alcove at Cinderella's Castle and the spires and filigree are spinning into a swirl before me. The thing is, unlike most folks that don't know when to not hire a string section miss; the songs here need this level of subtle ornament. They are too tender to exist without them.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com