Conor Oberst is Dean Moriarity—or Sal Paradise. Or any of the other roving drifters from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. At the very least, he effectively channels their nomadic American spirit on his first solo album in 12 years. This self-titled piece of Americana folk may just compel you to push off onto the steamy blacktop for a trek of your own.
Last year’s Cassadaga was met with mixed reviews, thanks to overblown production coupled with a lack of focus. In short, the album wasn’t Bright Eyes’ best. The effort left many fans scratching their heads and apparently left Oberst burned out. So he did what Americans do when they feel the crunch: They go.
Along with The Mystic Valley Band, a group of session musicians, Oberst ventured into the Mexican desert to escape the weight of cramped studios, stifling studio-types and the city. What he found there was a sense of purpose, peace and a sound that fit him. In losing himself on the road, he discovered something lighter, something more inspired. On “Moab,” Oberst outright declares: “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal.”
The sound is what you’d expect from a band holed up in Mexico for a few months. Oberst has never been an advocate for perfection, but he really throws off the chains here. Breezy acoustic strumming and a loose rambling of drums are somehow fused together to form an accessible concoction of alt-country, not altogether different from Cold Roses-era Ryan Adams.
On this album, critics might note the lack of angst and tension that have driven much of Oberst’s best work (see “A Perfect Sonnet”). There’s no screaming at lovers or God here. Much of that agitation has been replaced with a quiet contentedness— It’s a welcome reprise from the heavy introspection of the past.
The pared-down, whimsical approach places Oberst’s prodigious lyrical genius at the forefront, where he has always shone. He sings, “Some wander the wilderness, some drink cosmopolitans /Some cold science, some glean astroplanes / I can’t tell where the canvas stops, homesick as an astronaut.” Comparisons with Dylan’s rapturous prose have always been easy with Oberst, but here they become remarkably apparent. His ability to marry the concrete with the spiritual in a pop song is a gift that he has always offered us, but perhaps never so freely.
The Mystic Valley Band lets loose and genuinely rocks for much of the album. There are even guitar solos (gasp!) on several tracks, propelling the album forward to destinations Oberst has never explored before. “NYC-Gone, Gone” romps and stomps its way “down, down to Mexico City” in a beautiful mess of nasty guitar licks and a relentless bass drum. This is travel music—meant to be heard over the sounds of the road.
There are moments of quieter brilliance here as well. On the album opener, “Cape Canaveral,” Oberst goes stream-of-conscience over a simple acoustic strum, painting images like “Watch the migrants smoke in the old orange grove / And the red rocket blaze over Cape Canaveral.” Closer “Milk Thistle” is a melancholy rumination on death that reaches no conclusions The journey is more important than the destination, he seems to be saying.
Along with Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors, Lifted and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, this little bit of Americana stands up with the best that Oberst has produced thus far. He might just be one of the “mad ones” Kerouac famously endorsed in his novel. Let’s hope this road continues for a while. It’s been a smooth ride so far.
“Souled Out!!!” Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band