Ten years after breaking out with Fevers & Mirrors, Conor Oberst has, after a string of middling albums, exhausted much of his early promise and critical goodwill, the wunderkind buzz entirely behind him, the always unrealistic Dylan comparisons almost completely forgotten. Now, with Oberst approaching 30, Outer South, with its messy, collegial feel, represents a test for the Omaha songwriter, broaching the question of whether, free of hype and high expectations, he can cut it as an adult musician.
Recorded in Mexico with a gang of friendly contributors, the album has the laidback feel of a weekend romp, a ragged warmth that helps to ease the histrionic jitteriness that plagued Oberst’s earlier work. It’s an easy looseness that he’s been striving to affect for his entire career. Whether puncturing the big, busy compositions with barroom choruses and false endings on Lifted or experimentally trimming his sound on the Wide Awake/Digital Ash pairing of 2005, his music has always suffered from a self-conscious fear of pretension. But the homey atmosphere here feels less like a mature progression than the dead-end achievement of a misguided goal. The result is an album that’s unfortunately baggy and sodden with filler, which could have benefited from a little less camaraderie and a little more revision.
Ironically, as the Dylan comparisons fade, Oberst sounds more like him than ever, mimicking vocal rhythms that recall the folk icon’s mid-‘70s works like Blood on the Tracks and Desire, though with none of their resounding impact. Stylistically, Outer South is a descendant of Dylan’s work with the Band on The Basement Tapes, from the atmosphere to the numerous songwriters and slapped-together feel. All this does is reinforce the obvious: Oberst isn’t Dylan and this album, beyond the exotic Mexican-vacation aura, amounts to little more than some jovial messing around in the desert.
As wanly insubstantial as Oberst’s material may be, it’s still the most consistent part of the album, which is fringed with both impressive and painful contributions from the other members of the Mystic Valley Band. “Big Black Nothing,” written by Nik Freitas, is better than nearly everything else here, while a goofball disaster like Taylor Hollingsworth’s “Air Mattress” swings things to the other end of the spectrum. There’s a jaggedness to this kind of slapdash conglomeration, and though the styles of these musicians are technically similar, things never sound totally smooth.
In the end, Oberst’s trip to Mexico and flight from his own Saddle Creek label feel less like a new beginning or creative journey than attempts to escape from a cycle of diminishing returns. His youthful promise largely wasted, Oberst is now just a middling indie musician on a somewhat disappointing run. Most disappointing are the strident “Roosevelt Room” and “Spoiled,” nearly as messy and lyrically immature as his songs were 10 years ago, which indicate that his growth has been more of a feint than a reality. Simple, stripped-down songs like those on Wide Awake seemed like the next step in a blossoming career; now when Oberst dips into this folk palette, on songs like “Ten Women,” it stands out as another stylistic masquerade in a career that has failed to find any solid footing.