Psychics, orchestras and classic cars: Having something in common since 2007. These apparently disparate elements all make an appearance on Bright Eyes’ seventh studio album, “Cassadaga,” a collection of country-styled, musical clippings from a more adult, less experimental Conor Oberst. “Cassadaga” is the first time an album has made the moniker Bright Eyes sound like it refers to a band, rather than just a conceit by a singer-songwriter and guitarist, and the album sports a more extensive range of guest artists and orchestration. Though Oberst dabbles in themes of isolation, he stays consistent in his primary subjects: love, war and journeys.
Bright Eyes — consisting of Oberst, who was hailed in the ’90s as a rock prodigy, and a rotating cast of background musicians — first attained widespread recognition in 2002 for the album “Lifted or The Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.” In 2004, Oberst showed fans two sides of his music with the simultaneous release of two distinct albums: the electric “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” and the folky “Take It Easy (Love Nothing).” After attempting two separate tours for the albums sucked him dry, led him to drug use and ultimately caused a breakdown, Oberst retreated to the spiritualist (read: psychic) community in Cassadaga, Fla., to sort himself out.
Apparently, they read in his cards that he should return to his Omaha musical roots, name the album after their collective and hire an orchestra. At 27 years old, no longer a boy wonder, Oberst did just that, bringing in guest artists like neocountry Americana singer Gillian Welch (featured on the “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack) and lo-fi singer-songwriter M. Ward.
The mediums at Cassadaga had the right idea. The first track, “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed),” is Bright Eyes’ traditional, atonal opening song, meant to set the listener off-kilter. But the album takes a sharp departure from there with the almost outright country “Four Winds,” probably the most straightforward song Bright Eyes has ever released. It establishes the new, adult direction Oberst is taking, both with its folk slant and with the description of himself as a “newly orphaned refugee” on a spiritual journey.
“Cassadaga” then jumps immediately to two of the strongest tracks on the album, “If The Brakeman Turns My Way,” a track addressing Oberst’s drug issues stemming from the double tour, and the violin-charged “Hot Knives.” Later on, Oberst sidesteps potential mines, like “Make a Plan to Love Me,” the title of which prepares the listener for four minutes of banality but which is saved by the prominent inclusion of orchestra. With the help of female vocalists in the background, the song instead comes off as a less-sleazy update of a ’70s lounge-singer ballad. The album falls into something of a country glut on the seventh track, and only pulls out again with the political, “No One Would Riot For Less.”
Spit out on the other side of prodigy-hood, Oberst responds with a more polished voice and characteristic self-indulgence. He tried something new, and it worked, with only minor missteps.