Why is Conor Oberst so restless? What is he searching for? On his last album with Bright Eyes we found him spending time at Cassadaga, a spiritualist camp in Florida, attempting to step beyond conventional boundaries of travel and self-discovery. So where would the current and presumed future king of indie-troubadours take his loyal fans next?
Oberst’s eponymous solo release may not answer these questions but it offers plenty of speculation on the topics. The album was recorded at Valle Mistico in Tepoztlan, Mexico, a mountainside community renowned for its Aztec legacy and an inordinate number of UFO sightings. Maybe that’s why Oberst chose to record the album outdoors, under the starry night skies; one never knows where inspiration comes from. Chirping crickets add to the atmosphere and guitars and drums boom upwards and outward into the open air. A collection of musicians – referred to as The Mystic Valley Band – accompany Oberst on his journey, laying out a path of rocking alt-country songs interspersed by subdued folk ballads.
Destination plays a role throughout the album, beginning with the opening track “Cape Canaveral.” The journey here is more about nostalgia, a visit to a time and place long gone (and before Oberst’s birth) but not without hope. After all, what is more hopeful then a trip to the moon? Interestingly, Oberst begins the song with a tribal beat to the side of his acoustic guitar, suggesting a primal beginning to even the most far-flung journey. It’s one of the prettiest melodies on the album and offers up some very clever lyrics – “You taught me victory is sweet even deep in the cheap seats.”
Other destinations include “Sausalito” a jaunty love ballad that finds Oberst romancing his lover on desert roads and with promises of an idyllic life on a houseboat. “Moab” tracks Oberst racing away from the chaos and clutter in his life. “NYC – Gone, Gone” is another song about “getting-away-from-the-rat-race” mentality and escaping to - where else? Mexico. Another song about escape is the surprisingly upbeat rocker “I Don’t Want To Die (In the Hospital). Oberst has referred to this as a “jailbreak song” that was inspired by a conversation with Gary Burden, the 75 year-old artist who designed the CD’s jacket cover.
Exploration is not something confined to physical movement as Oberst makes clear in offering a wide range of emotions on this album. He’s in flux as much psychically as emotionally and his running from place to place is an easy metaphor for this upheaval. But his joy in the journey is apparent as he allows for minor mistakes and band banter to remain as part of the recording. And Oberst continues to grow as both a clever wordsmith and a singer who understands his limitations and turns them into assets.