Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Album Retrospective: Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst

Album Rating: A-
Conor Oberst had always written music for himself and not for a particular audience.   His songs had always been his deepest, darkest, and even most romantic personal stories: he told us the story of how lost a important person in his life in the beautiful country epic "Poison Oak," he told us the story of how he almost lost himself in "Let's Not Shit Ourselves," he told us the story of how he fell in love in the acoustic masterpiece "First Day of My Life," he told us stories of struggle and war in the digital driven "Easy/Lucky/Free," and he told us the story of heartbreak in the rock song "The Calendar Hung Itself."  Oberst's heartbreaking honesty, wit and "suffering" had given him a passionate almost cult like following, the admiration of critics who could not stop their cute Bob Dylan comparisons, and the envy of just about every other songwriter.  With Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst single handedly turned songwriting selfishness not only into a virtue, but into a powerful and influential career.

The only problem with Oberst's resume up until 2008 was that he had never made an album that wasn't about Conor Oberst.   Oberst had made every type of album and every type of song possible, except the type of album and the type of songs that could attract a wider and national audience.  This was because Oberst's reflective style of songwriting was seen by a large group of people as hyperbolic self pity, it was because his experimental nature was often seen as pitiful self promotion, and it was because his varying sound always had one overbearing quality: his voice.  Even though most of his rabid fan base considered Oberst's selfishness a relatable musical virtue, his detractors just saw him as another whiny singer who was trapped in his teenage years and can never make a more mature album for a wider audience. Oberst needed to sacrifice his career defining characteristic to display his talents to his detractors and the entire musical world, and that is exactly what he did on his self-titled 2008 album titled Conor Oberst. 

Conor Oberst is one of the few modern albums that can be summarized by its cover art: the albums cover shows Oberst laying asleep on a hammock on the middle of some Mexican beach, it shows a roaring ocean and some swaying trees in the background, it shows another person in the background who seems just as relaxed awake as Oberst is asleep, and it gives the general impression that Oberst is care free. This new found relaxed apathy that the album cover presents to us is in deep contrast with his career defining characteristic of hyperbolic levels of selfishness, but it doesn't hold back the album at all.  Oberst proves on this album that he does selflessness just as well as selfishness: the entire album is about different people, places and things, the entire album flows together perfectly, and it feels like the first time in Oberst's long career that he has put coherency over selfish ambition.  The result is his first album that flows together perfectly, his first album that feels like a 40+ minute soundtrack to someone's Mexican beach trip instead of the ramblings of a mad genius, and the first album that seems like it was made for the listener instead of himself.

Oberst's first "care free" album produces magnificent results in musicianship, songwriting, and quality of song.  The sound on Conor Oberst is a combination of every great folk and country song he had produced in his career up until 2008: the album has the fast paced country sounds of "Four Winds," the "ballady" sounds of "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come," and the quirky sounds of "True Blue." It may sound like Oberst is blending a lot of influences together but the new nature of his songwriting finally gives his instrumentation some semblance of structure: his first verse finally fits in with his first chorus, his second verse finally goes well into his breakdown, and his voice finally fits in with the music he is playing.  The album is basically a coherent, laid back, and structured version of every country and folk gem Oberst has produced to this point in his career.  It is just instead of the album sound giving us the impression that it was written in some sort of depressed panic, it gives us the impression that Oberst wrote these songs half asleep on a hammock with every care besides himself.

Conor Oberst also produces some of the best songwriting and songs of Oberst's career.  The album takes on the usual themes of love, politics, religion, traveling, death, taxes, and depression but is totally different from any of Oberst's previous works because he never seems to insert himself and his stories into any of these serious topics.  That means instead of sounding like a rushed and overemotional diary entry written by a skinny 17-year-old boy, the songwriting on Conor Oberst sounds like a grown man writing down other acquaintances views on really important topics.  Instead of just being an excellent first person songwriter and storyteller, Oberst has now become an "omniscient" songwriter who can write songs from just about anyone's perspective and just about anything.  The result is five of Oberst's best songs in his storied career: the songwriting clinic that is "Cape Canaveral," the rocking religious anthem that is "Souled Out," the six minute story "Milk Thistle," the Dylan sounding "Get-Well-Cards," and the traveling epic "Moab."

After the second chorus of the epic "Souled Out," Oberst screams "chorus again or another one?" at his fellow banddmates.  Even though this may seem totally pointless and childish to the average listener, it shows a huge change that this self-titled album presents in Oberst's career: it shows him as a "care free" musician swaying with the trees while sleeping on a hammock, it shows a musician who is enjoying the process of making music more than the process of pouring his life into his music, and it shows the sudden turn to selflessness that this album presents.  Conor Oberst is an album of crucial importance because it shows us that Oberst can make songs about anyone, anyplace, or anytime and still have those songs be as good as his songs about his over-exaggerated suffering.  It not only presents Oberst as a musician who can attract more than a cult following, it presents Oberst as one of the few musicians who could only be stopped by himself.

1. Cape Canaveral
2. Sausalito
3. Get-Well-Cards
4. Lenders In The Temple
5. Danny Callahan
6. I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)
7. Eagle on A Pole
8. NYC-Gone, Gone
9. Moab
10. Vale Mistico (Ruben Song)
11. Souled Out!!!!
12. Milk Thistle

1 comment: