Someday, Conor Oberst will give us a straightforward album of songs. Until then, we have to put up with his pointless opening numbers--often more spoken word than music. This time, we get "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" with its telephone-psychic intro and coda (Oberst has consciously promoted the mysticism shrouding the album) that tragically hampers an otherwise strong, neo-folk moment.
Thankfully, Oberst's flair for the dramatic has somewhat dissipated. Now, he's a full-fledged country troubadour, and it fits. Although previous career highlight I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning seemed phony with its lo-fi execution, Cassadaga's slick production is appropriate. The kind of honky-tonk jamboree that dominates a ditty like "Four Winds" (the album's finest moment) or the fuzzy rollick of "Hot Knives" are Bright Eyes; he's always been more Neil Young than Dylan.
Lyrically, Oberst remains precariously balanced between the self-indulgent and awkward ("Lime Tree": "But I keep going out / I can't sleep next to a stranger when I'm coming down") and the justifiably angry and political ("Four Winds": "Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe / There are people always dying trying to keep them alive").
Although it is refreshing to have an artist who so blatantly embraces "big issue" music and performs it in all the proper grandiosity--strings, backup singers, top-notch production--it seems Oberst is still too tied to his past, indie wunderkind status. Consequently, Oberst wrongly embraces country music's excess (13 songs; 1 hour) and remains mired in tired self-absorption.