Lots of musicians use their name as an album title. But for Conor Oberst, such a gesture amounts to a manifesto: The 28-year-old Nebraskan singer-songwriter has spent years recording under the name Bright Eyes, and so the release of Conor Oberst can’t help but signal something both self-conscious and assertive.
Recorded in Mexico with a group he’s dubbed the Mystic Valley Band, Conor sounds like Bright Eyes, only heightened — brighter, if you will: He’s emo balladeer, country rocker, and ferocious folkie rolled into one. His intimate croak doesn’t so much declaim as disclose the lyrics, as though what he’s singing is just between you and him. ”Moab,” with its chorus ”There’s nothing that the road cannot heal,” posits the journey as escape therapy from a bad romance. That song title is both a city in Utah and, in the Bible, a son of Lot.
Indeed, the album suggests someone’s been reading his Gideon’s Bible during motel stops on the road: Check out the invocation of Lazarus in ”Milk Thistle” and of heaven in ”Souled Out!!!,” the gospel imagery in ”Lenders in the Temple,” and the phrase ”Deliver me from the devil” in ”Cape Canaveral.” Not that Oberst has gone all spiritual on us. The disc’s best songs, such as ”Souled Out!!!,” are pleasingly earthy, with gritty chords and vocal vehemence. ”NYC — Gone, Gone,” with its Irish-jig stomp and hard-rock volume, makes his trip to Mexico sound as much about getting with a woman (”Down, down to Mexico City, caught myself a lady”) as seeking a fresh recording sound. And the aforementioned ”Moab” is fine, bouncing traveling music, with a bridge that’s a wicked little parody of Tom Petty’s ”I Won’t Back Down.”
Sprawling and brawny, Conor is the least maudlin album Oberst has made. Yes, he’s still a part-time wimp (”Milk Thistle”), and he can overdo the addled alliteration (”All the peacock people left their plumes in a pile”?). But most of the time, this collection is admirably vivid about the melancholy of both romantic love and the world containing it. B+
DOWNLOAD THIS: Listen to ”Souled Out” and the rest of Conor Oberst on the singer’s website