Conor Oberst: songwriter savant, indie-rock pinup…Traveling Wilbury? It certainly sounds that way on the 27-year-old singer’s seventh Bright Eyes album (he’s been recording since he was 14). Whereas 2005’s breakthrough I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning incorporated folk and country influences — Emmylou Harris sang on several tracks — it was also immersed in the narcotic-soaked urbanism of New York City. Cassadaga, on the other hand, goes in search of a (perhaps imaginary) heartland redolent of roadside bars and dusty truck stops — exotic American locales like the title town, a central Florida enclave known for its concentration of psychics. Musically, it’s his richest album yet, full of Nashville twang and Branson brassiness. And lyrically, the itinerant-traveler conceit is intriguing, even though its sweeping scope lacks the almost masochistically intimate power of earlier material.
Oberst, always precocious, clearly has the knack for a strong hook and a well-turned phrase (see ”Hot Knives” and ”Classic Cars”). Still, Cassadaga‘s sound is at times too mature — a staid boomer suit fit too loosely on his Gen-Y frame. (An exception? ”Make a Plan to Plan to Love Me,” a Spector-tinged dream of girl-group coos.) Guests like Gillian Welch and M. Ward lack the impact of Emmylou; their contributions are quieter, if no less accomplished. And that’s okay: In the end, Cassadaga is about Oberst — and the country that made him.