By Christian H. | Music | June 10, 2009 |
By Christian H. | Music | June 10, 2009 |
Call it growing up. Once the poster child for the emo generation, the purveyor of all things morose, Conor Oberst has made an album loaded to the 16-track brim with sun and country air. Call it the fulfillment of destiny. Oberst has many times over been painted as his generation’s Bob Dylan, a lofty mantle to carry, but one which he now seems to take with swagger and possibility; now, like Dylan, he’s messing with the formula of his sound and, like the older singer did with The Band, even taking a backseat now and then in favor of letting his backing band shine. Call it simplicity, call it youthful energy, call it what you will. Outer South is a surprising and highly satisfying album, the kind of shining music you never thought the singer of Bright Eyes would make.
I will preface the rest of my review with one point: This is still Conor Oberst. If you have never liked his voice, and it’s not a stretch to believe this is the case with some people, you will still not like it. If anything, his lack of vocal skill has almost become a point of defiance, proving that he doesn’t have to change himself to be successful in his craft. And damned if he isn’t right; what Oberst lacks in vocal prowess, he more than makes up for in songwriting and lyrical creativity. The words that draw us into the album are at once highly personal and highly poignant: “Potential, you’re a loaded line/The veil between the world and the faceless bride/There’s nothing yet, but a bunch of white/Oh potential, you’re a loaded line.”
Potential is something Oberst has carried in spades his entire career, sometimes to his detriment. Critics often wonder when he’ll be the savior of his musical generation. Fans wonder what he’s going to do next, while still insisting he go back to his darker roots. And no amount of sales success (Bright Eyes’ Cassadega went to number four on the album charts in 2007) will stop the cries that he will never break out into the mainstream. Those who once built him up are now intent on tearing him down for good. But for all the weight bearing down on him, Oberst has never sounded more self-assured and relaxed than on Outer South. It seems that surrounding himself with like-minded musicians, studying the old ways of rock and country, and losing his old moniker have given him a musical free reign, and he takes full advantage of this freedom to perhaps fulfill his potential at last.
Not a full departure from his last solo effort, Outer South sounds instead like a confirmation of that album’s validity. He continues to ply through the twang of country, as on “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)”, but it’s easy to argue that he’s rarely rocked harder, as on the excellent standout track “Roosevelt Room”, a brilliant song which reminds us that what Oberst has always done best is protest, and protest hard. Along the way, Oberst and co. examine all the classic sounds, from pop (“Air Mattress”) to sleepy folk (“White Shoes”).
On six of the sixteen songs (all of a solid length, definitely giving the listener their money’s worth), Oberst steps aside to allow members of The Mystic Valley Band to sing their peace. Some of the best results of this move include Jason Boesel’s “Eagle on a Pole”, an alternate version of a song which appeared on last year’s Conor Oberst. Some of the album’s best standouts come via Team Love artist Nik Freitas, who lends his voice (which sounds uncannily like George Harrison’s) to “Big Black Nothing” and “Bloodline”. Of course, such a risky maneuver is sure to produce folly. Taylor Hollingsworth’s blandly peppy “Air Mattress” and the Macey Taylor-sung “Worldwide” will likely make even hardened Oberst opponents long for the singer’s familiar warble.
All the same, Conor Oberst’s form has never been more precise than on Outer South. While there will always be detractors, critics who decry Oberst’s seeming pretentiousness (though I would argue that there is absolutely nothing pretentious about this record), and fans who mourn his bleakly emo beginnings (though I would argue that Outer South is easily more listenable than Fevers and Mirrors). There will also be those who maintain that Oberst has not reached his full potential after years of Bob Dylan comparisons. But I think Oberst makes his best case through his music, and there are few albums more worthy of the term “Dylanesque” than Outer South, as great a compliment as Oberst could ever hope to deserve.
Christian Hagen is a music journalist from Minneapolis (who is also in a band), who likes to waste his time writing about nothing, and who has yet to launch his own website (though one is on its way), so for now he can only link to his MySpace profile.