With Cassadaga, released earlier this month, Conor Oberst -- the creative force behind Bright Eyes -- has released his most fully realized work to date. Personal and political, Bright Eyes's sixth album tackles big issues with a compassion and empathy that never once resorts to the grating hectoring and empty posturing that has characterized some of his earlier releases, particularly the annoying Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005). Despite its ambitious post-9/11 themes, Cassadaga is a collection of songs that draws in even the most casual of listeners rather than alienating them. It's by far Oberst's most mature work yet.
"Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" damns the war in Iraq, while "Four Winds" defiantly attacks the organized religion ("The Bible is blind / The Torah is deaf / The Qur'an is mute") that's caused so much mayhem in the Middle East. But what prevents these songs from drowning in a sea of despair is Oberst's ability to negotiate and reconcile these topics with accessible folk stylings that are as simple as they are poetic.
Oberst summarily trashes the music industry on "Soul Singer in a Session Band," as "plastic piranhas in the city of salt" plan the Next Big Thing, while he predicts the consequences of political silence in "No One Would Riot for Less." And yet even here Oberst finds a fragment of optimism as he sings, "I'm leaving this place but there is nothing / I'm planning to take / Just you." Heartfelt, honest and compelling, Cassadaga is garnished with melodies so lush that Bright Eyes's ascent to the next level of mainstream recognition seems certain.