Of the many high-profile records that have already come out in 2007, Bright Eyes' Cassadaga has become the album that wasn't there. Which is strange when you consider that Conor Oberst is among the most talked-about singer-songwriters of his generation, and probably the most divisive. Throw in the fact that Bright Eyes is coming off its 2005 breakthrough I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning—the one album even Oberst's staunchest detractors must concede isn't complete whiny pabulum–and Cassadaga had the build up at least of a major release. But Cassadaga hasn't generated much in the way of passionate responses, either positive or negative. Lovers still love him, haters still hate him, and Cassadaga's existence is pretty much irrelevant to all involved. One month after it was released, it's already a second-tier Bright Eyes album headed straight for used CD store oblivion. Not bad, but certainly not important.
Given my feelings about Oberst, I guess it makes sense that Cassadaga is my favorite Bright Eyes record. Not that I have that much to go on–I've only heard I'm Wide Awake and Fevers & Mirrors, and the latter gets on my nerves so much that I've never gotten all the way through it. Oberst tends to inspire that kind of strong reaction in people–you either love him or hate him. For me it's a little more complicated: I find Oberst insufferably pipsqueaky, a wide-eyed hipster nightmare who annoys the shit out of me in millions of tiny ways. (Reason No. 2,319: The way he describes the magazine article as "arduous" at the beginning of "At The Bottom Of Everything.") I also think Oberst has a natural gift for melody and the ability to stitch together striking, disparate lines into a brain-tickling lyrical whole that at times recalls one Bob Dy–well, you know. In other words, I love AND hate him. And I find what I love about Oberst can't be separated from what I hate, because his prodigy-bred arrogance and meglomania fuels his artistic ambition and ultimately makes him more compelling than a Nebraska-born folkie obsessed with '70s singer-songwriters has any right to be.
I've long been fascinated by artists whose flaws stand side-by-side with (and frequently overshadow) their strengths, rather than in neatly aligned opposition. Ryan Adams–who might as well take a blood test to prove once and for all that he's Oberst's stoned older brother–is a less ambitious but more pleasurable singer-songwriter than Oberst, but his public persona inspires a similar reaction: "If I ever met this guy, would I shake his hand or punch him in the face?" (If you showed me that line in the liner notes to Rock N Roll where he refers to Parker Posey as his ex-CUTE-ive producer right before the meeting, I'd come out swinging.) Oberst also reminds me of Paul Thomas Anderson, another artist whose bad ideas are hard to distinguish from his good ones. I've seen Magnolia at least a half-dozen times, and I've had a different reaction each time–sometimes I find it overwhelmingly emotional, other times laughably pretentious, when in fact it's overwhelmingly emotional in part because it's laughably pretentious. Herein lies the appeal of this kind of artist–the nature of the work makes it impossible to make up your mind, so your reaction to the work sometimes stays fresher longer than that from a "better," more consistent artist. And while the shortcomings can be obvious and painful, they also exhibit more of that reckless, creative spirit you admire than the safer triumphs, as good as they might be.
Which brings us to Cassadaga, which mostly "offers one twangy, faintly outraged midtempo lament after another, lightly washed with countrypolitan string arrangements," according to A.V. Club reviewer Noel Murray. I would have replaced "twangy" with "dirgey," but otherwise Noel is right on target. If I'm Wide Awake was built to turn every listener into a Bright Eyes fan, the lumbering Cassadaga strains to turn those same people back. For people who have literally grown up with Oberst's four-tracked audio representations of their most personal and embarrassing journal entries, the wall-of-sound treatment given to Oberst's new "mature" material on Cassadaga must be incredibly alienating; for Oberst haters, he's still whiny and self-pitying enough to nullify any gains the relatively well-crafted music might make. For me, however, Cassadaga is just right, with plenty to love and hate, even in the space of a single lyric. For instance, I like the line in "Hot Knives" that goes, "I've been loved, I've been fucked, so what?" But I hate how he sings "So what?" like a self-satisfied 14-year-old. There are moments like that all over the album, where Oberst sounds like a kid pretending to be a grown-up. I think Cassadaga will likely go down as Oberst's failed (or at least tentative) coming of age move; but after listening to and enjoying the same-sounding "midtempo laments" for the past week, I think Oberst has succeeded (unintentionally) at portraying a young man's awkward stabs at adulthood, which to me is more interesting than the convincingly "adult" voice he seemed to be aiming for. So even the parts I hate have resonance–they even make Oberst's aging hipster stance more authentic. The gawky aspsects of Cassadaga were even more pronounced when I saw Bright Eyes on the tour's opening night at Pabst Theater in Milwaukee–backed by an 11-piece band including a string section, Oberst proceeded to get so shit-faced that he had to be carried off-stage by an annoyed-looking roadie. Before that he had to deal with very intense-looking fans proclaiming their love and worship for all things Conor, which he claimed not to hear. Clearly uncomfortable with the size of his band, Oberst seem to struggle with the scale of his new music, and he slipped in and out of focus. When he finally gave up and was carried off, he tucked his legs in a fetal position in the roadie's arms like a put-upon child leaving an unfriendly playground.
Obviously, it was a remarkable performance.