Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst

Merge Records
Buy (Amazon.com)


My taskbar begins to flash intermittent orange: a new instant message. It's from Kyle.

"new conor oberst just leaked on waffles, you should check it out"

I steal the music (don't tell the RIAA), but my rationale is sound. Kyle has good taste, I had been waiting for this album to drop for a few months now, and I'll probably end up buying it anyway. Besides, a lot of people must google his name, so if nothing else, a review here might get me a few hits and a higher PageRank. Such pure motives, amirite?

I don't know how many times I've listened to this record over the last few days - it could be ten, could be twenty, only my last.fm can tell for sure - but it's been a respectably high number. I think that this is a better metric of my enjoyment of an album than any flowery prose I might direct its way: The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me (which would be an 8.5 or 9/10) was on repeat from Monday, November 20th until Sunday, the 26th; I listened to Louder Now (a Cove Reber/10) four times and gave away the CD. I listened to Conor Oberst exclusively for about 48 hours. Bearing that in mind, I don't think a comparative review is necessary, except to say that Conor Oberst could have been a Rocky Votolato album (and this is a very good thing).

All this talk about dates and times and metrics and playcounts is pretty boring though - when did criticism become all about the numbers? There's still room for subjectivity, there's still room for gimmicks, there's still room to shift the emphasis from the work being reviewed to the one reviewing the work. But this album deserves better than that; Conor Oberst deserves better than that. I don't really like the guy (the proseletyzing nature of his live sets can be a bit off-putting), but I can't hate him either. For one, he looks like my best friend from elementary school, Cameron Prescott (there I go, shifting the spotlight). He's also damn talented - he deserves better.

Instead, I'll talk about Conor Oberst on its own merits, and suffice it to say that it has plenty of those. The self-titled nature of this album is quite fitting, as this release finds Oberst really coming into his own. He's never had the vocal chops of an Idol contestant, but, as with Dylan, you're not paying for that; you're paying for the articulate songwriting, and there's plenty of that too. In fact, this record contains what are two of Oberst's strongest songs to date: Danny Callahan and I Don't Want To Die In The Hospital.

Danny Callahan muses on generosity and death and a bone marrow transplant that just couldn't save poor Danny Callahan. Plus it's got a groovy, jangly, country rock feel - awesome, guys! I Don't Want To Die In The Hospital follows from the title: Conor doesn't want to die in a hospital. A younger Oberst could (would) have turned this into a veritable whinefest, a downer about death. Here, it's probably the most upbeat, frantic recording in his oeuvre, matched only by The Four Winds EP's Cartoon Blues in terms of its sheer volume. Oberst doesn't care that he's going to die, he just wants to do it on his own terms. After all, if "they don't let you smoke and you can't get drunk," well, where's the fun in that?

In this vein, he is also more self-assured then ever, selling his indie folk wares with gusto. Sure, there are some questionable lines: the chorus of Eagle On A Pole informs us that "El cielo es azul," or literally, "the sky is blue". But he delivers others with such conviction that "If I go to heaven, I'll be bored as hell, like a crying baby at the bottom of a well" - a line which would ordinarily fall flat - comes off as vaguely insightful, poignant even (Milk Thistle). I might not understand it, but it sure as hell seems like Oberst does. He could be bluffing, but if nobody calls him on it, then what's the difference?

But before I conclude, one major gripe: since when does 3 sustained, off-key drones played on what sounds like an out-of-tune conch shell count as music? Valle Mistico (Ruben's Song) is one minute of my life I'll never get back. I don't know who you are, Ruben, but fuck you, and fuck your song. That being said:

Almost eight months in to 2008, Conor Oberst just might be my favorite record with words (UpCDownC's Embers, an instrumental album, holds top honors - sorry Conor). Anybody who wants to try and top it, please, be my guest; if you manage to do so, you'll have one hell of an album on your hands.

Key Tracks:
Danny Callahan
I Don't Want To Die In The Hospital
Cape Canaveral

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