"Cassadaga" (Saddle Creek)
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BRIGHT EYES' eighth album is named for a Florida town that attracts psychics the way Cancun draws college kids, and the first voice on the record is that of a clairvoyant speaking amid a swirl of orchestral fragments about "getting rid of the old feelings, of the old ways of thinking."
Her words set in motion a journey of purification that anchors this ambitious album (in stores Tuesday), sending singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, his two bandmates and guests, including M. Ward and Gillian Welch, on an American sojourn, in the shadow of holy war and under the scowl of a poisoned sky.
In "Four Winds," the Omaha collective sweeps like a spirit above the continent, trying to make peace with a legacy of genocide and injustice. Oberst still sees "bodies decomposing tonight in an abandoned building," and he pictures the nation caving under the weight of a blighted history.
That song's fiddle-led surge evokes another great musical expression of a sundered America, the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and much of "Cassadaga's" music has the loose-limbed, communal spirit of Dylan and the Band's "Basement Tapes." That roots sound frequently interacts with baroque pop orchestrations by Bright Eyes trumpeter-pianist Nate Walcott and subtle shadings from multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Mogis.
After the arty folk of "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and the electronic pop of "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," its twin albums from 2005, this mix of rollicking soulfulness and textured experimentation is a natural and notable advance for Bright Eyes and adds a welcome urgency to Oberst's vision.
But it's also a conservative consolidation, another refusal by this doggedly independent 27-year-old to make the grand, messianic, era-defining breakthrough that his partisans have been awaiting for most of this decade
Maybe that kind of consensus-forging album can't exist in a world of fragmented audiences and the isolated listening experience. Still, artists as diverse as the Arcade Fire, Wilco and Bloc Party do try. If you want a clue to Oberst's reluctance, look to some of "Cassadaga's" more confessional material, in which his priority is less on reaching out to his generation than on an intense search for order amid confusion, for footing in a world where the ground is always moving.
"Better find yourself a place to level out," he advises in "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" as he sorts through romantic interludes and painful aftermaths, panic attacks and "detox walks," all played out against a queasy, apocalyptic backdrop.
The music doesn't always live up to the demands of the journey, but Oberst's trembling, vulnerable voice carries through to a rewarding conclusion. Ultimately, his embrace of the crackpot seers of Cassadaga becomes an act of defiance, an affirmation that in a world up for grabs, vortexes and crop circles make as good a road map as anything.