A little like another alt country bad boy, Ryan Adams, he is, in turns, frustrating...
Chris Jones 2008
More famously known as the wayward lead singer/writer for Nebraska's Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst is undeniably a genius. The trouble may be that he, himself, knows this too.
On this fourth solo album (so-called because one member of the aforementioned band is missing), recorded on location in Mexico with the 'Mystic Valley Band', he delivers a playful set of lo-fi alt country tinged with distinctly Anglophile touches. There's still the distinct whiff of a young Dylan here, especially on the lone acoustic Cape Canaveral and Milk Thistle.
However humour is never far from the agenda. While Danny Callahan is a moving true tale of death and loss, I Don't Want To Die (In A Hospital) looks at the same subject from the other angle: turning the whole experience into a jaunty piano blues knees-up. This schizophrenia makes the whole album both intense and offhand, often in the space of the same song. There’s also still the strange fascination with what might be termed 'new age' issues that appeared in Bright Eyes' last album, Cassadaga. Milk Thistle is about the titular herbal remedy, and indeed works like some kind of balm for the ears.
Ultimately Oberst still longs to mythologise the road and its philosophical implications for the soul. This is why the album's crowning moment is Moab: the kind of hymn to wide open spaces that he’s now so good at.
This album never scales the same tuneful heights of the full Bright Eyes line-up (lacking producer, Mike Mogis). Yet it's perversity that makes Oberst a true maverick. A little like another alt country bad boy, Ryan Adams, he is, in turns, frustrating and utterly fascinating. For this reason alone he'll always be worth watching.