Its been 15 years since the world was first introduced to Conor Mullen Oberst. At an age when most of us were still concerned with cooties and whether we’d get the back seat on the bus ride home from school, the 13-year-old Omaha native, the third son of Matthew and Nancy Oberst, was busy releasing Water, a nine-track album on the upstart Lumberjack Records.
15 years later, Lumberjack Records now goes by Saddle Creek, and Conor Oberst has transitioned from a conflicted teenager, known for his emotionally bombarding lyrics, to a musically conscious adult, who has embodied the importance of sound in between his gripping examination of both personal and worldly events. Gone are the changing hairstyles, the self-conscious questions of life’s worth and the never-ending, at times overwhelming, critique of happiness and love. Instead, the now 28-year-old singer/songwriter has embraced maturity in both music and life, choosing to rid elements like the static clutter of Digitial Ash In a Digital Urn and lo-fi fun of Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground for the richer, folk-oriented sounds of his most recent Bright Eye’s project, 2007’s Cassadaga.
With the strokes of violin in “Four Winds”, the glistening organ filling “If The Breakman Turns My Way” and the full orchestral effect of “No One Would Riot For Less”, Oberst used Cassadaga to reach exploration and imagery that went beyond even the most epic of his odes. Cassadaga was his portrait, his masterpiece, and ultimately, his transition from singer/songwriter to musical mastermind.
But as brilliant as the album was, Oberst is still searching, an exploration that has left the musician shedding the musical pseudonym that perhaps is more widely known that his own name. Instead, Conor Oberst returns for the first time in 12 years with a project not only under his name, but one which carries it as a title as well.
The product of self-production, a new backing group of musicians who calls themselves the Mystic Valley Band, and a month long of recording in Tepoztlán, Morales, Mexico, Conor Oberst is that next step in the journey, 12 tracks of brilliant, folk infused sounds backed by the thoughtful soul searching that only Oberst himself could deliver. In reality, the self-titled effort is not much more than a continuation of Cassadaga, in both theme and style. The much-distributed first single, “Danny Callahan”, vividly depicts a sobering reality in life, in this case, the illness of a child, behind the same musical grace and beauty heard on “Hot Knives” and “I Must Belong Somewhere”, while songs like “Moab” and “Saulsito” are just the latest pages in Oberst’s take on alt-country.
But as much as the stories and sounds remain a carry over of what was heard on Cassadaga, Obert’s self-titled creation differs, perhaps fittingly considering its name, on a personal level. As he concludes in “Moab”, “there is nothing the road cannot heal.” The joy of a new band and the thrill of a journey now spanning two albums finds the still young song-writer discovering that in between the heartbreak, happiness can still be found. From the escape to Cassadaga just a short year ago to his newest conquests in Mexico, Oberst has traveled through both soul and reality, resulting in a man not only full of confidence and knowledge, but with a renewed outlook on life. The galloping, cowboy-approved diddly “NYC-Gone, Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Die (in a hospital)” represent a side of this warmth and happiness, songs surely the result of alcohol and late night collaborations between friends.
In fact, from the time we first heard the sounds of the Mystic Valley Band back in December, Oberst has described his work with the band as something of “perfect harmony”, words up until recently, you’d never associated with the man behind Bright Eyes. Conor Oberst, the man who for 15 years has divulged in so many tales of death and depression that the word “emo” has even been used to describe his music, has found “perfect harmony”?
Sure, Conor Oberst is still exploring, still searching, still trying to understand things that perhaps can never be understood. If anything, lines like “I never could get used to happy sounds” and the gloom of “Danny Callahan” reaffirm this. But at the same time, Oberst has experienced the first tastes of joy, and ultimately, conclusion. He has found his goal, and no matter how many times he must go “up and down,” read the newspaper that “stabs my eyes,” or experience any of the other agonizing repetitions he associates with life’s daily grind on the album closer “Milk Thistle”, Oberst now realizes, the struggles are just part of the process. In the end, nothing lasts forever.