Conor Oberst has long been able to manage his own evolution as a songwriter. Since he was a young lad in his hometown of Omaha he has asked for little help outside of Mike Mogis and Andy Lemaster; on Outer South he gives up a fair amount of the writing to various members of his Mystic Valley Band. Unfortunately, this group of mystics just doesn’t come across nearly as convincing as anything previously released under Conor’s name.
A noticeable difference here is that the acoustic guitar and orchestration that usually accompanies an Oberst outing, even on last year’s self titled album, has always played a significant role in the presentation of song. Even the spectacular work of Mogis always seemed to raise the guitar to the heavens for all to listen; this round, the full-on band approach that began to evolve on Conor Oberst has fully taken root.
The side effect, not only of allowing others to take part in the songwriting, but the encouragement of the full band sound, aside from the mostly acoustic “Ten Women” or “White Shoes,” makes much of the record seem somewhat disjointed. The album seems to waver between various songwriters, and the effect makes it difficult to grasp the album as a whole entity.
The good news aside from the lack of cohesiveness is that there are some bright moments on the album that solidify the progress that Conor has made as a musician. Many a detractor always commented on the warble that existed in his early recordings, especially when you look at Fevers and Mirrors, but that unstable vocal has long since disappeared, making way for a more mature vocal. His songs benefit from this; “White Shoes,” for example, is probably one of the better songs he has written (furthered by the fact that it seems to be mostly him on guitar).
Perhaps this sort of evolution is completely acceptable, and in fact, it should really be encouraged. No one wants to listen to the same record being recorded time and time again, so you have to give it to the man for going out into new territory, but in doing so he is bound to alienate various listeners, perhaps even his most diehard fans. The error with the album, though there are bright spots, is that he has lost his intimacy throughout the recording of this album. Where he once seemed to speak to you in your bedroom through your speakers, he now shouts at you as the lead speaker for a group of musicians. Let’s forgive him for now, and hope the intimacy returns.
Outer South is out now on Merge Records.[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/09-white-shoes.mp3]
Download: Conor Oberst – White Shoes [MP3]