As a Bright Eyes fan, it’s a little tough for me to write this piece. I’ve loved Conor Oberst and company ever since Fevers and Mirrors, and 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning left me me with high expectations for their follow-up, Cassadaga. Does it meet them? It’s tough to say. While Oberst has always evolved in between albums, Cassadaga represents what might be his greatest stylistic shift yet.
Any fan of Bright Eyes will tell you that’s there’s just one element that lifts them from good to great; Oberst’s lyrics. While Bright Eye’s melodies are far from weak, it’s Oberst’s writing that creates classics. Listening to songs like ‘Lua’ (I’m Wide Awake . . .) and ‘Bowl Of Oranges’ (Lifted . . .), hearing Obesrt’s voice crack as singing turns to something far more cathartic, you can’t help but admire the craftsmanship that goes into his lyrics. Despite what detractors may say, the comparisons to Dylan are well-founded, at least lyrically. Unfortunately, Cassadaga is severely lacking in this area. The lyrics aren’t poorly written, but you can tell that Oberst doesn’t connect with them in quite the same way he has in the past. There’s no passion, no fire, in his voice anymore.
While Cassadaga is nearly devoid of the band’s greatest strength, every other element is done expertly. Cassadaga is Bright Eye’s seventh studio album, and it shows; this is a band that knows it’s way around a recording studio. The instrumentation is superb, featuring a few new instruments, and the production is top-notch. Despite this, two elements stick out just a bit. Firstly, some of the backing vocals are questionable at best; those on ‘Soul Singer In A Session Band’ are downright awful. Also, it’s seems like Oberst discovered the reverb button for the first time while mixing the album. I can understand wanting a more natural-sounding album, but unless Oberst was recording in his basement again, he went a little too far.
But it would be unfair to talk about Cassadaga’s flaw without mentioning the good parts. Maybe the best thing Cassadaga has going for it, apart from Oberst’s scant flashes of lyrical genius, is it’s experimentation. Although only prominent on two tracks (‘Coat Check Dream Song’ and ‘Cleanse Song’), there’s definitely a sound here that you wouldn’t expect on a Bright Eye’s album; tribal percussion, chants, and other assorted niceties. They fit suprrisingly well, and bring some intriguing new elements to the Bright Eyes formula.
So, will Cassadaga be vying with Lifted . . . for position as my favorite Bright Eyes album? Definitely not. But despite it’s flaws, it’s still a solid record. It feels less like a misstep, and more like a growing pain for the band. Every band does an album like this, and most have done far worse. If this is the worst Bright Eyes has to offer, then they’re still in pretty damn good shape.