The 7th installment by Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes sees them open everything up with a more expansive and altogether grander outlook taking precedence. Named after a Florida town visited by Oberst to consult spiritual mediums, Cassadaga aims at the grandeur of a modern American classic. Unlike the work of many 27 year-olds it's possible to plot an artistic progression through the work of this man and see that this album is the coming together of many facets of his life. Early albums like the fantastic Fevers & Mirrors ride on a tense balance of frail whispered devotions of love to impassioned shrieks of hatred while 2005's Digital Ash In A Digital Urn embraced a more electronic sound in its production. Cassadaga acts as the melting pot for all this history including Oberst's recent opposition to anything Bush. The result is a well rounded if not slightly diluted depiction of the present day Oberst and his country.
The success of the Bright Eyes sound is down to simple song writing. Oberst is undoubtedly a complex character but this rarely complicates the songs. If The Brakeman Turns My Way and Middleman are what this band is built on. As usual, Oberst's lyrics are dark and brooding but there is a hope in these songs that coupled with the steady, soaring melody make something swell in your heart. He injects an ambiguity into his poetry mixing gritty realism with hopelessly romantic imagery. His music references time-honored song writing traditions but at the same time is fiercely contemporary. Having said that, the low point of the album comes in the form of the Soul Singer In A Session Band and its a rare moment where we see obvious song writing and dull lyrics.
The band has grown considerably since 2005's double bill release and the string section and soaring backing vocals on many tracks are what really separates this from previous works. Nowhere is this seen more powerfully than on the album highlight No One Would Riot For Less. Oberst's quivering voice mirrors the delicate guitar picking that accompanies it. His protagonists, playing out tales of inevitable death, are comforted by the line "Love me now, help is coming," and from the distance an angelic, female voice can be heard. The strings gently pick things up and carry them away to heights rarely seen by this band.
Most bands reach a point where the far ends of their creative leanings converge together and when this happens the result is often a more well rounded, comprehensive whole but also a leveling out that can round off edges and dilute extremes. At times Cassadaga sounds like Bright Eyes have reached this point. The bitter edge to the Oberst tongue seen on Fevers & Mirrors has been on the way out since 2005's I'm Wide, Awake It's Morning and is obviously being vented in his Desparecidos punk-rock side project. Since his scathing attack on the Bush administration in the song When The President Talks To God, Oberst has become a figurehead for the protest song and though I didn't want this album to be plagued with anti-war imagery the moments where this is addressed are quite feeble compared to the venom of his previous song. Claims that the country is being run by a madman and comparisons to soldiers and insects are nothing we don't already know and not what we have come to expect from this lyricist. To criticize an album for not enough political opinion seems ludicrous but in an age where every cretin is shouting empty, anti establishment noise we need artists like Oberst who don't speak like they have a media reputation to protect and who above all have the ability to express an honest and important opinion.
But in his defense, as you pull back from this album you see that as a whole Cassadaga manages to paint a very real and intelligent picture of America today with all its hopes and fears. In the sweeping orchestral grandeur we see the vast open planes of the American landscape and crouching somewhere within the frail voice of Oberst himself we see the fragility of his country and the uncertainty of its future. 2005's double release was a special moment for this band and though Cassadaga doesn't live up to either of those albums it is still a worthy follow up.