That he has recorded his first proper “solo” album in over a decade suggests that Conor Oberst, better known as the boy wonder behind Bright Eyes, is making a deliberate break from his recent work. But the changes evident on Conor Oberst are more subtle and speak to his ever-increasing willingness to self-edit. Given that his previous two efforts, 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and 2007’s Cassadaga, included such exemplary singles as a duet with Emmylou Harris on “Another Travelin’ Song” and the “apocalyptic hoe-down” of “Four Winds,” respectively, the laidback country-rock style of this effort isn’t such a radical departure.
It’s no surprise that Oberst is able to pull off this style exceptionally well, but what impresses most about the record is how its relaxed vibe—the album was recorded with the specially assembled Mystic Valley Band in just two months at a private house in Mexico—carries over into Oberst’s songwriting. His tendencies toward precious over-writing and the most self-indulgent characteristics implied by the “emo” tag have been reined in here. That isn’t to say that Oberst isn’t still willing to tackle hefty emotional themes—one of the many standout tracks, after all, is “I Don’t Want to Die (In a Hospital)”—but that the language he uses and his vocal performances are all more restrained and more focused than they have been on many of his albums as Bright Eyes. It’s hard to get too weepy or spend much time navel-gazing when the music is as warm as it is on “Get-Well-Cards” and “Moab.”
The wanderlust that led to the album’s recording is also reflected in Oberst’s songwriting, which emphasizes the appeal of a transient lifestyle. Opener “Cape Canaveral” asks, “Hey, hey, hey, mother interstate/Can you deliver me from evil?” while “Moab” answers, “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal.” Elsewhere, Oberst checks in at Sausalito, NYC and Valle Mistico, with each change of venue bringing renewed optimism and open possibilities. Whether he’s romanticizing life on a houseboat in “Sausalito,” observing what’s available in the barrio in “Souled Out!!!,” or distracting the nurse and making a break for it on “I Don’t Want to Die,” there’s an impulse to escape from both literal and figurative trappings in these songs. It gives the album a greater thematic focus than most Bright Eyes records and, again, suggests that Oberst is learning how to edit his material in ways that enhance the work. Regardless of what name he’s using, that’s an encouraging development for an artist who has long been hailed as one of his generation’s most promising songwriters. Conor Oberst is his first start-to-finish album to make good on that promise.