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Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band – Outer South

on May 05, 2009, 9:35am
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As I check Amazon’s information regarding Outer South, the latest incarnation of Conor Oberst’s near lifelong musical trek, I see the suggested purchase accompaniment: Bob Dylan’s forthcoming Together Through Life. This makes sense . . . sort of. After all, back in 2003 those convenient, “The Next Bob Dylan” labels were being issued out by feverish journalists like hotcakes. Granted, the dude is one prolific S.O.B., but nearly every folkie from Loudon Wainwright III to Ryan Adams has had the label thrown their way.  Should Conor Oberst be excited to be coupled so effortlessly with one of music’s greatest figures? Should Dylan be embarrassed at the prospect of being muddled together with an inconsistent twenty-something?  Oberst has made many a record, but lately it seems each subsequent LP finds him entangled with an image he has made for himself, but is constantly trying to alter. So where does Outer South sit? It’s quite difficult to say.

Bright Eyes fandom has never been easy. Having to defend that it’s “just folk music” gets tiresome, as do the unfortunately nostalgic realizations that come during listens to Letting off the Happiness or Fevers and Mirrors. Hell, Oberst dropped the Bright Eyes moniker for a reason. Even he has come to terms with his former self. But this begs the question: is his current work too self-conscious? Is his evolution too forced? Will the real Conor Oberst please stand up?

There’s no telling which side of Conor Oberst represents the musician’s true essence, and to even say that artists only have one true self is somewhat ludicrous. If this were true, then the Radioheads and the David Bowies of the world would have a lot of explaining to do. But when does an artist cross the line between self-differentiating experimentation and overly self-conscious work? Does the fail button start flashing when the result is too obviously contrived . . . the Chris Cornell effect, so to speak?

It is easy to see why some would argue that Oberst is trying too hard to be a homespun folkie these days, especially given the guy’s expansive back catalogue, seeping with lo-fi emotive lyrics about how much life sucks. But it’s just as easy to fathom why some would be opposed to looking at things from such a negative place. To others, maybe it’s just the other way around. Perhaps all of those years he was consciously trying so hard to be a lyrically talented forlorn teenager that he’s simply worn out the role. After all, his transition was just that – a transition. He didn’t just go straight from Letting off the Happiness to Outer South. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning began the process in a lush and beautiful way that didn’t at all ask for criticisms of self-alienation. But for some reason, at a first glance Outer South just seems out of character.

Is it all the major keys? The up-tempo Band-esque jaunts? The sort of played-out sense of freedom?  Is it too relaxed?  If anything, the album is noticeably easy-going in its style and organization. No minute-and-a-half long, first track intros to be found here. It almost feels like a collection of songs, rather than a cohesive record warranting repeated continuous listens. It shows an Oberst willing to let go of the reins, even granting lead vocal spots and songwriting tasks to members of the Mystic Valley Band. Even the album’s cover expresses this ethos, displaying him and his band as a group of guys just “chillin” on a couch. Whether it is forced or not, Oberst has changed a great deal since his tear jerking beginnings, and it seems fair to say that he’s not going to fall back into his old mindset anytime soon. But, can we really give a guy shit for following the natural process of maturation, even if it just so happened to occur in the midst of a serious musical career yielding a significant following? And is he really all that different from who he once was?

The album begins with the organ toting “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)”, which sets the scene for the rest of the effort quite well. Backing vocals, bending electric strings and Garth Hudson imitations start things up with a song that metaphorically discusses the cycle of a life as it reaches its inevitable dwindling stage. It’s hard-rocking enough to set a lighter mood for Oberst, but really in a lyrical sense, he is still the same introspective, symbolism-wielding poet he has always been. “Dementia, you better treat me good/The human race is in its second childhood/I never learned but I understood/Oh dementia, you better treat me good.” Of course, this is not without the casual “I’m just a guy who loves music” line: “classical music plays from the radio.” In the first track we get a glimpse into the balancing act that Oberst seems to be playing with himself. Though, it’s nothing to get too worked up about, because the song holds together and is nothing short of great. Next we move into the slower “To All the Lights in the Windows” a plead for forgetting about a former lover, rich with religious and historical imagery. We get commentary on Jesus: “Jesus off in the water/Standing on his feet/Yeah that’s the thing about charisma/it makes everybody believe.” It’s a great track about the painful revelation of a love lost: “And all the lovers that you’ve been teasing from your balcony/may they carry you far from my memory.”  As he sings the chorus, Oberst hits some new melodies, something often difficult to find in his Bright Eyes work.

Then comes the first of several tracks led by someone other than Oberst. “Big Black Nothing”, sung by a strikingly similar sounding Nick Freitas adds some variety to the mix, with low backing oohs and surprisingly appropriate handclaps. Oberst may be trying to invoke The Band both aesthetically and with his decision to spread some of the vocal wealth, but he’s not doing a bad job in the least.  It actually sounds quite natural, and there’s really nothing negative to be said about it. The next track, however, “Air Mattress” sung by Mystic Valley-er Taylor Hollingsworth provides the first flavor that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. What sounds like a hodgepodge of indie and folk, equipped with cheesy synths and horrible lyrics, repeatedly asks “Can I sleep on the air mattress with you?” in a voice that Oberst probably shouldn’t have lent a whole track to.

However, Oberst refreshingly returns with the upbeat, organ laden “Cabbage Town”. Here’s where Oberst again slips from his heartfelt lyrical play to a kind of silly nonsense: “I’m never telling what I find out/I’m gonna love you like the New South.” Throughout the album’s duration, we get a glimpse into everything Oberst currently represents, as well was what he used to be. The angry southern power of “Roosevelt Room” will catch you off guard, with its deeply political yells, as will Jason Boesel’s version of Conor Oberst’s “Eagle on a Pole”, an entirely different song centered around its predecessor’s opening line. However, the slowly developing “White Shoes” will remind you of the Oberst of old.

Throughout Outer South, lyrics fluctuate between earnestly analytical and slightly contrived, but the latter is never too upsetting.   It’s a long set of tracks whose stronger songs outweigh the weaker ones. Where lyrics sink, for the most part the band’s rocking energy comes to the rescue. It’s not perfect, but it’s not trying to be. Speculation as to whether or not this laid back feel is a manufactured one should probably be put to rest. Sometimes people just go through changes of heart, producing a new inspired sound. Oberst has always been someone who has ignored what anybody else thinks. In his spiteful Lifted epic “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” the guy made that perfectly clear: “I do not read the reviews, no I’m not singing for you.” So those looking to get Lifted once again, in addition to fans who want another trip to Cassadaga, should be able to find things about Outer South worth liking. Oberst is having some fun, but he hasn’t lost his sparkle, he’s only found another way of utilizing it. At this point, the Dylan comparisons may be a bit of a stretch, but it can be said that both have expansive, shape-shifting catalogues, that aren’t free of the inevitable misstep. Outer South isn’t a full-on misstep, but it’s certainly not a masterpiece. Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be ignored as a noteworthy piece of Oberst’s ever-expanding catalog.

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