A collection that acknowledges that safe shores are in sight but chooses to swim away from them.
Bright Eyes involves two key components: Conor Obert’s well-crafted songs and Mike Mogis’ brilliant production touches. On Cassadaga, the ambition that both men demonstrated on a series of highly imaginative prior recordings fused with their talent. Touches of the strange added emotional depth and a flourish of the cinematic to the affair, resulting in what may be the ultimate Bright Eyes release. Some have called it the slickest of the outfit’s offerings but that’s hardly an attribute that one ticks off in the negative column.
As happens elsewhere in the Bright Eyes discography, “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)” brings us into the fold with both a sense of welcoming and foreboding. A woman’s voice floats through the speakers, dropping us into the middle of conversation that we swiftly paddle to make sense of. It’s a jumble of tarot cards, suggestions of travel to various locales, vortexes and references to how the death of one phase is the start of another. All that becomes fitting for a collection that involves some of the most polished material the group would ever deliver.
One can hear country/Americana influences in previous Oberst compositions but “Four Winds” puts them on full display, with fiddles and jangly acoustic guitars front and center. If The Band had moved into Big Pink circa 2007 it’s likely the Canadian/American outfit would have come up with something akin to this track. At its heart, it’s a poem about a changing way of life, a disappearing America that in the coming years would stand in sharp to relief to an age of subprime mortgages, deepening political and social divides and the illusion of privacy finally being lifted, its ashes scattered to the wind.
There’s also, perhaps for the first time, an acknowledgement of the straightforward pop world, “If The Brakeman Turns My Way” owing debts to Elton John, Todd Rundgren and other masters who had shaped the future of the meditative ballad. Oberst, of course, doesn’t play the song with the kind of naked emotions either of those men were prone to putting on display. As happens so often in his work, he sings of the universe and the universal while remaining true to the record’s themes. There are hints of mysticism, spirituality and magical thinking, all of the things the heartbroken reach for in times in trouble and yet the familiarity of those emotions is largely absent from the picture. We’ve been here before and because we have, there’s no need to speak those names.
Not that everything’s buried in mysteries and enigmas: “Make A Plan to Love Me” hits its mark precisely because it uses the familiar material of the brokenhearted to make its case down to the female ooohs and aaahs heard in the distance and those sweet sentimental strings that give some added emotional heft throughout. One might argue that the largest part of this record is Bright Eyes leaving behind its status as an indie act and coming more fully into the mainstream. There may be some credence to that argument but “Soul Singer in a Session Band” and “Cleanse Song” retain the rough edges of the earlier, sometimes seemingly haphazard aesthetics. There’s an oddness to both tracks that don’t act as affronts to the mainstream as much as remind the listener that Oberst, Mogis and Derek Walcott were determined to do things on their own terms.
Pop records rarely feature the kind of penetrating honesty heard in Oberst’s performance on the dirge-y “No One Would Riot for Less” nor are they ever quite as dreamlike, associative as the closing “Lime Tree.” In other circumstances, the juxtaposition of those songs and more straightforward pieces such as “I Must Belong Somewhere” might seem to rub but there the transition from one to the other is seamless and refreshing and further testament to the beautiful plan that came together over the course of these grooves.
At other moments there were more obvious stabs at experimentation, such as on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and The People’s Key but neither of those (especially not the latter) had the same heart as this collection. That is as it should be. Bright Eyes never made the same album twice, while also giving its audience a consistently strong body of work that offered few turns so wide that we couldn’t keep up. Maybe that marks as Cassadaga as the most experimental among them. It is a collection that acknowledges that safe shores are in sight but chooses to swim away from them. That is undeniably brave.