The latest release from Bright Eyes, Cassadaga, plays out like a tear-stained love letter to a country sweetheart, or a sad journal entry full of sober realizations and poignant decisions. Lead singer Conor Oberst has clearly grown up and displays a distinct maturity on his sixth album with Bright Eyes. The singer, who has been referred to by many as the new Bob Dylan, continues to impress with an incredible ability to conjure up vivid metaphors and intelligent lyrical phrases. The smart songwriting is steeped in southern flavor, with plenty of wailing lap steel and galloping percussion throughout the album.
Cassadaga was inspired by a town in central Florida of the same name, known for its high concentration of psychics and clairvoyants. According to a recent interview in Spin, Oberst heard of the town through a friend and was immediately interested. He traveled there about a year ago, filled with anxiety and a need for a big change in his life. He got a reading from a woman who said, “Hey. You’re on the right path – you might be winding around, but you’re moving in the right direction.”
Apparently, the reading had a deep effect on Oberst, as the first line on the album is from a scratchy recording of a woman speaking about the town. “Cassadaga, oh yeah, that’s where you’re going to find the energy,” she said.
Though it is a consistent theme, Cassadaga is not a country album. While it definitely bears resemblance to 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, it seems that this time around, Bright Eyes has elected to blend its influences rather than divide them. Fans will hear elements of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn sandwiched between lonely chords and solemn verses such as, “And since the operation / I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary / Especially what you love,” from the song “Lime Tree.”
“Four Winds,” the second track on the album and the title of a six-song EP that the band put out last month, is a standout track. With references to W.B. Yates and both literary and biblical nods towards religion, it comes across as a smart, catchy and somewhat aggressive ballad about the emptiness of faith and the transient nature of life. It can be heard in verses such as, “The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Qu’ran’s mute / If you burn them all together you get close to the truth” and “I was off to old Dakota where a genocide sleeps / In the black hills, the bad lands, the calloused east / I buried my ballast, I made my peace / heard four winds leveling the pines.”
Religion and possibly politics get mixed into the metaphors again on the slow, sad and simple, “No One Would Riot for Less.” Lyrics such as “Death may come, invisible / or in a holy wall of fire,” and “From the madness of the governments to the vengeance of the sea / everything is eclipsed by the shape of destiny” hint at a sad and frustrated realization at the ontological hopelessness of being alive and young in the tumultuous world of today.
In the end, Cassadaga is an album that wanders through themes, soaring on orchestral string configurations and plunging into quietly poignant acoustic medleys. Oberst’s characteristically shaky vocals serve up a variety of intelligent ruminations on life, culture and society, giving the album a completeness that was lacking in previous releases. The sad singer from Omaha, Neb., has quickly become an old soul in the body of a young man. Though 27, Oberst is almost ancient in respect to the indie scene that he is associated with – however, it is clear that despite turning out so many albums, he still has plenty of ideas left.