When it was announced that Conor Oberst would be stepping off Saddle Creek for a little bit, I was a bit taken aback; I expected a huge step away from his traditional sound. In some respects, the departure has changed the overall sound, but at the heart of this album is Conor Oberst at his best–ever.
Immediately upon first listen, the change is apparent. The string arrangements, and other effects of long-time producer Mike Mogis have disappeared. For me, it works to the benefit of Conor, because it establishes his voice as the focal point. Sure, in the past, that might have been a bad sign, but he clearly has control over his voice here; his voice sounds stronger than ever. And, in all honesty, I thought the grandiose arrangements on his previous albums got a little over-indulgent–ruining some songs.
However, this new album is listenable the whole way through. I struggled to find a song that I didn’t want to focus on for a moment of time; going back through most songs a dozen or so times before sitting down to write about it. Using headphones will definitely make your listening experience a great deal better, for there are some little nuances in this recording that really open up the album to the listener. The approach of this album seems to be a bedroom approach, which makes the entirety of this album more personable–although I hear it was more of a front porch recording in a quaint town of Mexico.
Lyrically, he continues to get better as he ages. He goes from first person to third person within songs, but all the while holding on to general themes and ideas. A lot of people will probably look to the subject matter, and his continual growth with mystical ideas, but the writing in general just keeps improving. Sure, you can take away some points for his simpleton Spanish where he mutters “El cielo es azul,” during “Eagle on a Pole,” but I suppose the mood struck him. He does it several more times as well.
If there is a fault in this album it might be the inclusion of “NYC-Gone Gone.” It doesn’t add much to the story of the album, but I’m just a listener. Also, there aren’t any standout tracks. For me, this means that the album is extremely even, which I think is good, but some people always want a single. This album suffices without one. Perfect.
Can I just add, that despite the turnout, I applaud Conor for disappearing off to remote locations to record his latest albums, as if Omaha wasn’t enough. I think it adds to the stories he tells, and the feeling of the albums, which, in this case, is extremely beneficial.
Don’t forget he will be playing with his new band at Austin City Limits this year. The man commands a stage well. Watch for yourself.