- by Nathan Fidler Rating:8 Release Date:2016-10-14 Label: Nonesuch
Conor Oberst has been in this game a long time now, making records with the popular Bright Eyes band, as one of the Monsters of Folk, with his Mystic Valley Band and even as a post-hardcore punk outfit Desaparecidos. But at 36, this musical journey has taken a toll, and after a torrid few years personally, he’s stripped everything back to the bare bones.
With just a guitar, piano and harmonica and no band to hang his songs on, he’s baring it all here. You can once again reacquaint yourself with the quiver in his voice as he claims “I don’t wanna feel stuck baby, I just wanna get drunk before noon” on ‘Barbary Coast (Later)’.
The harmonica recalls folk legend Bob Dylan (a comparison he once carried when Bright Eyes were in their prime), adding to the feeling that these are modern folk tales. Conor deals with the subject matter he knows best - the befuddling modern world, crushing introspective viewpoints and the odd drink.
Feeling slightly less slick than the I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, era songs, these tracks are closer to this sound. A gift for the melody as well as great poetry, you have to look a little harder for the things you love, there’s no Mike Mogis production or warm Mexican atmosphere (something which made his self-titled album a peach).
There are several mentions made of health, something more concerning for him personally now. ‘Tachycardia’ alludes to his troubles “hair slicked back all nice and smooth, in a court room sweat dripping down my back, it’s a bad dream”, while ‘Counting Sheep’ is littered with references such as “temperatures cool, blood pressure’s fine, 121 over 75, scream if you want no one can hear you”.
In truth, when you layer up what he’s saying, it’s the most honest he’s been with us for a while. Bright Eyes, on their later albums, became slightly more mystical, engrossed in the power of change, but the band’s foundations originally lay in the emo-folk of Conor. If you’ve grown up with Conor and Bright Eyes, this album will make a great deal of sense as part of life’s journey.
Some tracks fall a little flatly in this regard, often because it’s unclear what he’s referencing. ‘You All Loved Him Once’ could be directed at anyone, there are few specifics, making it fairly irrelevant to the overall feel of the record. But in comparison, the bombastic piano on ‘Til St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out’ portrays a wintery night spent as a regular in a bar so warmingly.
A seemingly busy individual, it looks hopeful that Oberst has turned past one dark chapter in life. So, as sad as these tracks might appear, it’s really something of a joy to still have him making music.