In early 2005, Bright Eyes simultaneously released the falteringly experimental electro-pop disc Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and the fluid, accomplished folk-rock record I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. This year, the big Bright Eyes release is Cassadaga, a polished, mellow-and-melancholy statement about exhaustion, fading hope, and getting lost in the comforting sigh of a crackly old radio. But it's already been outclassed by last month's Four Winds EP, which matches one of Cassadaga's best songs with five tracks arguably better than anything on the album.
It isn't that Cassadaga is necessarily bad, but where I'm Wide Awake was compact and graceful, the new record lumbers, belaboring Conor Oberst's anguish about the state of the world. At its best, Cassadaga channels the loose, rootsy feel of The Band or Tom Petty, though even when Oberst riffs on the life lessons of a lusty older country-music fan in "Classic Cars," or ponders fate in "If The Brakeman Turns My Way," the arrangements—worked on in collaboration with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott—feel too studied. They're smart and full, but inert.
Or maybe they just feel that way because Oberst rarely varies his approach. He adds a little distortion to the tense, life-in-transition sketch "Hot Knives," and dares to slather "beautiful music" schmaltz all over the surprisingly effective "Make A Plan To Love Me," but mostly, Cassadaga offers one twangy, faintly outraged midtempo lament after another, lightly washed with countrypolitan string arrangements.
It doesn't have to be this way, as the fleet, happily eclectic Four Winds proves. The EP moves from the title track's rollicking front-porch hootenanny to the Leonard Cohen ghostliness of "Smoke Without Fire," and the My Morning Jacket-like Southern rock of "Stray Dog Freedom," fusing a bunch of Oberst's past genre-dabbling into something more cohesive. All Oberst's usual lyrical concerns remain: the vapidity of American popular culture, the sense of foreboding pervading our modern times, the need to connect with people more intimately, and so on. But the songs are more tuneful and lively—and less full of themselves.