All right, Conor Oberst. White flag. You win. With your hair all long now and those convincingly repentant songs about snorting dope, digging Satan, and conquering starlets, we give. Cassadaga, the ambitious mess that is Bright Eyes' fifth record, finds darling Conor finally resembling a gen-u-ine “recording artist.” It's a big deal: More than mere license to loft the mini-fridge through the hotel window or indulge a coke-high hankering for rock 'n' roll oboe, it's a distinction rarely bestowed on the argyle sweater set. Even if it doesn't give credence to the chorus who crowed about Conor being The New Dylan all those years, the big risks, big rewards, and occasional disasters within Cassadaga make it the real deal.
It's not because the record is flawless — far from it, what with the abundant razor-to-wrist earnestness and bloated aggrandizing. The phone-recorded psychobabble opener “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)” announces the record's metaphysical theme with the subtlety of a carnival gypsy. The swaggering chutzpah of “Soul Singer in a Session Band” recalls the rhinestone portentousness of Neil Diamond's “Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show.” And what's up with “No One Would Riot for Less” nicking post-Waters Pink Floyd? Or the Peter Gabriel—inspired tour of Middle Eastern exotica on “Coat Check Dream Song?” Shit, if nearly half of it weren't such a drag, Cassadaga would be amazing.
But redemption? Start with the high-harmonizing, floor-stomping chorus of “Four Winds” — a rare instance where fiddle (singular) is chosen over violins (plural), while Conor screams about the devil and Babylon while indiscriminately name-checking a Joan Didion book. Weirdly, it still works, and so does “Hot Knives,” a hard-swinging shuffle about “hot knives on a dance floor” (whatever that means). “Classic Cars” is so confident in its construction that wonky sentiments about lying “beside her in a bed made for a queen” and getting “out of California” get a pass. And comparatively easygoing Americana tunes like “Middleman” and “I Must Belong Somewhere” show off Conor's prodigious gifts as a songwriter. At its core, that's where Cassadaga succeeds — via moments so brilliant we're blind to the duds. Anyone with a few Dylan or Diamond records certainly knows the feeling.