If I had a dime for every time a music fan or critic hailed an artist as “the next [insert music god here],” I’d be as wealthy as any of today’s megastars. It seems that such historical comparisons are used as a crutch by reviewers who aren’t creative enough to describe the talent of an artist in their own words. To those reviewers, I’d like to send a friendly message: it’s okay to be speechless. Just say that you are, and that will make a bigger impression than a string of senseless adjectives you pulled from a thesaurus or a psuedo-intelligent analogy even you don’t quite understand.
With that said, I’m ready to declare Conor Oberst as close to the next Bob Dylan as modern music can offer. I’ll admit it – Oberst’s talent is so far above and beyond his peers that he merits a lofty, though perhaps unoriginal, historical comparison. Oberst has been making high-quality music since his early teens, and with his latest, a self-titled solo album, he continues in this vein. Like Dylan, Oberst seems to have music seeping out of every pore and has provided fans with an impressive body of work thus far. Also like Dylan, Oberst works well on his own as well as with other musicians, as his work with Commander Venus, Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos plainly show.
Conor Oberst showcases the artists talents on his own, and feels like an intimate, private session with the songwriter. Oberst’s emotions are laid out plainly, without the wailing guitars of Desaparecidos or the orchestral arrangements of Bright Eyes to veil them. He did have help, though, in the form of his backing group, the Mystic Valley Band, on Conor Oberst (download here).
The album begins with a great track, “Cape Canaveral,” in which Oberst muses, “victory is sweet, even in the cheap seats.” Though he isn’t singing about broken hearts, as he is wont to do with Bright Eyes, Oberst’s voice is still raw and emotional, yet skillfully refined. While the guitar picking is definitely worth a second listen, his intelligent lyrics will keep this track spinning again and again.
The next track, “Sausalito,” is a little more upbeat, and the country/blues-tinged guitar calls to mind the open stretches of desert and lonely highways Oberst sings about. “Get Well Cards,” which follows, has a similar tempo, and features an excellent acoustic solo towards the end of the track.
“Lenders In The Temple” begins with an intricate finger-picked intro that flows into Oberst’s haunting near-whisper. He suggests that you “watch your back, the Ides of March, cut your hair like Joan of Arc, disguise your will, they’ve found you out.” This is only the tip of the lyrical iceberg though, as Oberst offers plenty of other insight over the skillful guitar playing, such as “erase yourself and you’ll be free, men dull are destroyed by the sea, all we are is colored sand.” This is definitely one of the album’s best tracks. However, all of the tracks feature good guitar and interesting lyrics – “Lenders In The Temple” merely takes it to the next level.
The next track, “Danny Callahan” is another solid cut, as Oberst explores one of his favorite themes, loneliness, noting that “some wander the wilderness, some drink cosmopolitans,” though he “can’t tell where the canvas stops, homesick as an astronaut.” This is a great line, as it’s far from a common, cliched line, though it is one that makes sense. The song relays a strong message, as it focuses on a sick little boy who couldn’t be saved, though “the love he feels he carries inside can still be passed.”
The upbeat, tongue-in-cheek “I Don’t Wanna Die In The Hospital,” follows, with Oberst asking a companion to “make a noise to distract the nurse before I take a ride in that long black hearse” and chanting, “help me get my boots on” in the chorus. The hilarity continues as Oberst laments, “And they don’t let you smoke and you can’t get drunk, all there is to watch are these soap operas.” Another solid song, musically and lyrically.
The next few tracks are great as well, with “Moab” standing out as one of the best, as Oberst imparts the wisdom, “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal.” The true highlight of the latter half of the album, though, is the penultimate song, “Souled Out!!!”
Here, Oberst uses some clever word play, chanting in the chorus, “You won’t be getting in, you won’t be getting in, all souled out, in heaven!” For those that don’t appreciate the pun, Oberst follows the chorus with a great mini-solo.
The last song, “Milk Thistle,” is a great one as well, as Oberst is at his best – quiet, slow and contemplative. He pledges to “keep death on my mind like a heavy crown” and predicts that “if I go to heaven, I’ll be bored as hell, like a little baby at the bottom of a well.” This is a great song to end the album, and it may indeed be one of Oberst’s best overall.
While Conor Oberst sounds a lot like a Bright Eyes album, it does stand up well on its own. In any case, it is an excellent addition to any Oberst fan’s collection, and would be a fantastic introduction to those unfamiliar with the artist. And while Oberst may not yet be a musical icon on the stature of Bob Dylan, continuing to release albums like this will put him well on the way.